|About this Recording
8.669016-17 - TAYLOR, D.: Peter Ibbetson [Opera] (Griffey, Flanigan, Zeller, Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Deems Taylor (1885–1966)
Lyric Drama in Three Acts
From the Novel by George Du Maurier
Peter Ibbetson - Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor
The People of the Dream
Pasquier de la Marière, Peter’s father - Barry Johnson, Baritone
Seattle Symphony Chorale
Joseph Deems Taylor (1885–1966), born and raised in New York City, had only a few months of piano studies as his musical education by the time he entered New York University. When he graduated in 1906 he knew he had two significant talents: composing and writing. Indeed, the music he composed for three NYU varsity shows had caught the attention of Broadway producer William Dillingham who, in 1910, brought Taylor’s The Echo (with libretto by classmate William LeBaron) onto the Great White Way for a short run. Victor Herbert, who had come to one of the NYU shows, saw raw talent in Taylor, but told him he needed much more musical training. So Taylor scraped up enough money for a half-year of music theory, but not enough to study orchestration. That he taught himself using the music scores of great composers as his textbooks.
After college he dropped “Joseph” and became a more distinct “Deems Taylor” and worked for publishers and newspapers to pay his bills as he composed cantatas (The Highwayman was widely performed), arranged choral works for pay, and composed a highly successful Through the Looking Glass suite, based on episodes from the Lewis Carroll novel. The suite would become his most famous composition, performed by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1924) as well as Willem Mengelberg and the New York Philharmonic (1925). Blessed with an intrinsic wit, he became a member of the Algonquin Round Table where he made theatrical connections that brought commissions for incidental music for major drama productions such as Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1921) and Ferenc Molnar’s Liliom (1923), later the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
What would give him the most New York exposure came about in 1921, when the New York World’s famed music critic James Gibbons Huneker died. Taylor, who seldom doubted his own potential, applied for the job at the influential Pulitzer paper—and got it. For four years he covered the concert and opera scene, making a special point, whenever he could, of the need for new American operas, a plea that caught the attention of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, then the Metropolitan Opera manager. Gatti (as he was known in the opera world) arrived in New York from Milan’s La Scala in 1908 with “a hope….to discover some good American operas.” Helped by Otto Kahn, the powerful Metropolitan Board chairman, Gatti produced nine operas by American composers between 1910 and 1920, including one by Victor Herbert. The Met even sponsored a competition in 1912 for the best American opera; the winner of the $10,000 prize was Mona, by Yale’s Horatio Parker. It received three performances, but like the other American operas it also soon disappeared.
With no significant American opera successes, both Gatti and Kahn left off their search for a few years, but by the mid-1920s a jolt of Americanism had invaded the land and they decided to try again. “We followed a different procedure from that of the early years,” Gatti wrote years later, “[and] looked for a composer who had proved his gift, and who had knowledge of the theater.” With his mind already set on Taylor as that person, Gatti sent Edward Ziegler, his assistant, to take Taylor to lunch and chat about possible composers for an American opera. Ziegler asked Taylor who he thought would be a good man to ask to compose the opera. The then music critic responded assuredly: “Eddie, don’t be silly; commission me.” Ziegler hid nothing when he responded: “That’s why I invited you out to lunch.”
The result of this first Metropolitan Opera commission was The King’s Henchman, with libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay, then a reigning American poet. Premiered in February 1927, it gained critical acclaim and ran for three successive seasons, with critics especially praising Taylor’s orchestrations and choral work in the opera. Two days after its première, Gatti and Kahn offered Taylor a contract for another opera to be ready in two years.
As Taylor began the process of selecting a story for his second opera, he looked back on the deficiencies of The King’s Henchman. The story, chosen by Millay, came from an Anglo-Saxon tale, with similarities to Tristan und Isolde, something critics had chided them on. “Too European,” some said. Taylor, relying on his own literary talents, decided he had to be the librettist for his next opera.
After losing two years in false starts with several American sources, including the Elmer Rice drama Street Scene (which would later be turned into an opera by Kurt Weill) Taylor returned to a non-American source, Peter Ibbetson, a novel from the British Victorian era by George Du Maurier (1834–1896). The story was not unknown on this side of the Atlantic, having been serialized in Harper’s Monthly, then dramatized on Broadway in 1917 by the British actress Constance Collier in a successful two year run starring Collier and both John and Lionel Barrymore.
Du Maurier’s story tells of two young children, Gogo Pasquier and Mimsey Seraskier who grew up near Paris with great affection for each other. Gogo’s mother was English, so after both his parents died “suddenly” Gogo is sent to England to his uncle Colonel Ibbetson, an overpowering, nasty person, who changes his nephew’s name to Peter Ibbetson. The young man becomes an architect who still hopes to find his Mimsey. At a formal party Peter is intrigued by the appearance of Mary, Duchess of Towers. When he returns on a nostalgic trip to his French hometown, he finds that he has a dream of his Parisian youthful days. When the Duchess stops for the night at the same inn and they meet for the first time, their conversation reveals that they have both had the same dream at the same time. As children, Mimsey had taught Gogo how to “dream true,” where a man and woman enter into each other’s dreams. As they speak they realize that they are indeed Gogo and Mimsey. Mary quickly, but sadly, bids Peter a permanent adieu because she is married.
On his return to England he has an altercation with his uncle, who has attempted to pass on the story as true that he is actually Peter’s father. Peter, in a fury at the lie, strikes and kills him. Imprisoned and sentenced to death, Peter refuses to tell why he killed his uncle. Mary arranges through a friend for Peter’s commutation to life imprisonment and in the thirty years left to Peter, every evening the distant Mary comes to him as they “dream true.” One evening she no longer appears and he knows she is dead. From his deathbed, a youthful Peter arises to meet Mary, who comes to lead him to a life together.
Taking place in both France and England, the story was one of the first to deal with the unconscious, the world of dreams and reality. Exactly why Taylor was intrigued with this concept is unclear, though throughout his life he leaned toward stories of childhood and/or female perfection. After gaining the rights to the story from Collier, on December 9, 1930 he plunged into the work of composing; 223 days later the opera was completed. In an unusual libretto language duality, Taylor chose to write in French the scenes where Peter returns to his Parisian youthful home. Peter Ibbetson had its première at a Saturday afternoon performance at the Metropolitan Opera on February 7, 1931 with an exceptional cast highlighted by Lawrence Tibbett as Colonel Ibbetson, Lucrezia Bori as Mary, Duchess of Towers and Edward Johnson as Peter Ibbetson, with Tullio Serafin conducting. At the conclusion there were 36 curtain calls, after which the beaming composer appeared before the curtains and asked the audience to remember that “you have just seen one completely happy man.”
That happiness was not shared in toto by the critics who had hoped to find in Taylor’s second opera a more personal approach to music than what they heard, which for many reflected back instead on Debussy, Massenet and Puccini. Taylor had written an opera where most of the conversations were of a recitative type, with only several set pieces. The orchestral melodies, rhythms, and emphasis moved under the declamations as if the opera was one lengthy tone poem. There was, however, universal approval of Taylor’s use of French folk-songs, most of which were uniquely French, but several of which were composed by him. Similarly the waltz and polonaise melodies of Act I had critical approval. In addition, the orchestral throbbing in the first scene of Act IV—a type of threnody for Peter’s soon-to-come execution—brought positive remarks. The opera received 22 performances over four seasons from 1931 to 1936, a record for an American opera that held until Porgy and Bess entered the Metropolitan repertory in 1985.
When Edward Johnson became the opera’s manager in 1936, he acknowledged that the $150,000 that the opera’s performances gained during the Great Depression helped greatly to keep the company afloat. But beyond the financial benefit, another must be admitted: Peter Ibbetson provided proof that American operas had a place at the Metropolitan.
Act I. After a brief prelude, the curtain rises on a grand room in the English country home of Mrs Deane during an elegant party, with the orchestra providing a tuneful waltz for the dancers. Seated on a side settee are Mrs Deane and the annoying Colonel Ibbetson, who clearly has more than conversation in mind as he asks, “Grant me but a moment, then …alone.” She rushes away while her mother, Mrs Glyn, who finds the Colonel most attractive, steps in and inquires of the whereabouts of his ward: “Your nephew, Peter Ibbetson. Is he not here?” Ibbetson: “Here?…Somewhere, hiding in a corner.” Glyn: “Not like you, dear Colonel!” Guests, seeing the Colonel, comment on his affectation for attention, especially in delivering “his own bad poetry.” Mrs Glyn unctuously urges him to recite and he quickly acquiesces, implying clearly he had written the French poem: “I call it: La Bien-Aimée.” He sings the melodious work and afterwards party-goers comment that it seems far better than his previous works.
Minutes later Peter Ibbetson hurriedly enters carrying a rolled manuscript, begging the hostess’ pardon for being late because he had gone back to get a copy of the poem by Alfred de Musset that his uncle had planned to recite. The crowd then comments on the Colonel as an imposter, a fool. The furious Colonel berates Peter: “You’ve no more grace or breeding than your father…That lazy scoundrel of a mincing Frenchman!” Peter, livid with rage, seeks out Mrs Deane. Finally calmed down, Peter tells her of his boyhood days as Gogo Pasquier in the town of Passy, near Paris, with his English mother and his French father. As he recalls the beauty of his childhood days, the voice of Madame Seraskier, his mother’s close friend, is heard singing a French lullaby, while Peter tells how that voice always calmed the headaches of her daughter Mimsey, a little girl he was entranced with. He also tells of Major Duquesnois, of Napoleon’s Old Guard, who was “Straight as a ramrod, and as fierce to behold as he was gentle.” The Major would take him and Mimsey walking to a nearby pond, telling them stories. Often they were joined by Peter’s father, Pasquier de la Marière, who is now heard singing an eighteenth-century French song in the background.
Then Peter tells Mrs Deane what Mimsey taught him: “Always Mimsey believed in dreams. She would try to teach me ‘dreaming true.’” Peter explains that if properly done “Your dream will take you anywhere you please.” To the puzzled Mrs Deane, he tells how he came to England with his uncle after his parents had died “quite suddenly. And one day he came; And took me away forever. A strange man. I did not understand him then; I do not, now. I think that he hates me, and that I hate him.” Mrs Deane, who has already told Peter that she detests his uncle, vows friendship to Peter.
Colonel Ibbetson returns and makes clear to Mrs Deane his claim that he had slept with Peter’s mother and that he is Peter’s father.
Mary, the Duchess of Towers, a friend of Mrs Deane, is announced, and soon after her entry she chides all the party-goers for their materialistic concerns in the only soprano set piece of the opera: “I could never dedicate my days, my precious days, to your solemn ritual of fashion…” As Mary leaves, she catches sight of Peter and inquires about him and is told that he is “A young architect. A fine lad. His name is Peter Ibbetson.” Though she doesn’t know the name, she is reminded “Of someone I used to know as a child…in Paris.” After she leaves, Peter similarly inquires of Mrs Deane about the lady who had just left for he feels a communion with her that he can’t explain. The Colonel returns to ask Mrs Deane for a dance. They leave Peter alone. He picks up the bouquet left by Mary and murmurs “L’amour!” as the curtain falls.
Act II is in three scenes. In Scene I, Peter has returned to a Passy inn to savor the days spent there in his boyhood. All the conversation is in French, with that between the inn proprietor and Peter underscored by generally sprightly music. When the owner pardons himself to take care of a daily customer, Peter learns that it is no less than an aged Major Duquesnois, and the orchestra becomes full of martial strains. As Peter speaks with the Major, he finds only brief recollections in the old man of those bucolic days. When asked about Mimsey, the old soldier speaks as if she is dead, still the name Mimsey raises something in the Major who then tells his nurse, “Je veux vous raconter l’histoire de Gogo” (“I want to tell you the story of Gogo”), then proceeds to tell Peter of the “good comrade” that little Gogo was and how he had been a grandfather to him and had loved him very much. He bows formally to Peter and leaves, on the arm of his nurse, with the hope they will meet again.
Peter goes to the window and inquires of the waitress, “Who is that lady yonder, in the carriage?” When told it is the Duchess of Towers, he wonders why she is in Paris, then lies down on a chaise-longue, his hands behind his head as the lights darken, and Scene II opens, the first of the opera’s two dream sequences. A chorus urges Peter to “Come back, Peter, come back.” The lights rise upon the garden in Passy, the garden of his childhood, with a young Gogo seated at a table reading, with his mother nearby, along with Mimsey and her mother, and a youthful Major strolling about. Mary, the Duchess of Towers comes through the garden gate and speaks to the grown Peter: “This is the way. Come with me.” As they enter the garden hand in hand, a puzzled Peter asks, “Why am I here?” Mary answers: “I do not know. This is my dream; and never before has any living creature entered.” As they observe themselves as children, Mary tells him “Now you are dreaming true.” She goes on to tell him that though the figures appear real, “You may never touch them, nor speak to them. For they are dead and gone, and touch or speech will veil the dream, like breath upon a windowpane,” and then leaves him “For I am waking and the dream fades.” But though Mary departs, Peter still is observing a scene of his childhood, where his uncle enters the garden, a much younger Captain Ibbetson, and in the presence of the studious Gogo reminds Peter’s mother that “only by a whim of fate does he call me ‘uncle’ instead of ‘father.’” Ibbetson and Peter’s mother had been promised to each other but he left for a year only to return and find that she had married Pasquier. Ibbetson makes a clumsy attempt to seize her and as Peter sees the unfolding drama in his dream he yells, “Mother! I’ll defend you!” and as he rushes forward, there is an orchestral crash of thunderous sound and “the scene is plunged in darkness.”
In Scene III, Peter still sleeps while the storm rages. When he awakes, he finds himself staring directly at Mary, Duchess of Towers. She addresses him as “Peter Ibbetson,” recalling him from Mrs Deane’s party. She explains that the storm caused her to stop for cover and that she often comes to Paris. During an emotional duet, they speak of the joys they find to be back in the Paris environs, and Peter tells Mary: “That night I first saw you…You must have seen how I stared at you. I hope you have forgiven me.” Mary answers, smiling: “I did not mind. For you were so like someone I once knew; a little French boy who was kind to me when I was a little girl.” Within a few seconds, they realize that they are indeed Gogo and Mimsey and after the emotional encounter, Peter tells Mary: “Just now I dreamed of you,” to which Mary answers, “Dreamed…of me?” Peter explains: “A strange dream. I dreamed that I stood outside the old garden in Passy; and I tried to enter. But I could not find the gate. And suddenly you were there; And spoke to me, saying, ‘This is the way,’ And took my hand, and led me in.” As they speak back and forth about their dreams and Mary learns more, she finally bursts out saying: “It was my dream, too, Gogo!” But then, in an emotional high point of the opera, Mary, who is married, speaks of their future: “Mr Ibbetson…To see you again, after all the years…I cannot tell you what it means to me. You will always be in my thoughts, But never in my dreams…Nor I in yours. We shall never meet again. We must not. It is too late. I am not free. (She pauses for self-command.) I shall think of you, always…(Almost sobbing) Dear Gogo, farewell…” After giving Peter a gentle kiss on the forehead, she starts for the door. A shout of “Mimsey…” from Peter is enough to cause her a short hesitation, but she leaves nonetheless as the curtain falls on Act II.
Act III is in four scenes. Scene I is in the library room of Colonel Ibbetson’s London home. Mrs Deane and her mother Mrs Glyn are seated awaiting the Colonel. They have with them the letter that the Colonel had Peter bring to them and which speaks of the Colonel as Peter’s father. As they chat Mrs Glyn takes the letter from her daughter and tells her: “What a villain to write so about his nephew!” Unexpectedly, Peter arrives, telling them he just came back from Paris that very day. Mrs Deane tells that the reason for their visit is the need to regain some letters she had sent the Colonel, but who will not return them. But the sudden return of Peter allows an opportunity to Mrs Glyn:
The two women then explain that in the letter the Colonel has claimed to be Peter’s true father.
Mrs Glyn, in spite of her daughter’s objection, shows Peter the letter sent them by the Colonel, which he had Peter deliver the day after the party. Peter reads the letter and with hands clenched asks: “What shall I do? Oh, God, what shall I do.” A door slams and Colonel Ibbetson is heard coming into the house. Peter asks the women to leave so that he can speak with his uncle alone. The Colonel enters and sees Peter.
After further denials by the Colonel, Peter thrusts the letter at him, but the Colonel claims it to be a forgery. Peter leaps at his uncle: “You cowardly cur! Tell the truth! It’s your only chance.” The Colonel, realizing the seriousness of the situation, breaks a window and yells for help. He then admits that he wrote the letter and advances on Peter screaming, “You butcher! You bastard,” only to receive a blow on the head by Peter with a cane. People rush in while Peter stares at the cane: “It seemed…to crash…right in…” and the scene instantly darkens.
Scene II is in the Chaplain’s Room of Newgate Prison. The orchestra begins an ongoing solemn persisting rhythmic undercurrent. Peter is at a small table writing when the chaplain enters. It is dawn on the day of his execution for the murder of his uncle.
He gives some small gifts to the chaplain to bring to Mrs Deane and the Duchess of Towers. Then the chaplain asks once again: “Peter Ibbetson. These are your last moments. Will you not break your long silence and tell the truth. Tell…” Peter interrupts: “Why I killed him? No, I will never tell.” He refuses to repent, but joins in prayer with the chaplain. Then, immediately after Peter states: “I am ready,” a breathless Mrs Deane, accompanied by the prison governor, arrives to announce: “The death sentence has been commuted. Your sentence is imprisonment for life.” Peter, who has prepared himself for death, tells them: “I know you mean to be kind, and just and merciful. Be merciful then! Spare me this torment! Let me die!” Mrs Deane consoles a sobbing Peter, telling him how the Duchess pleaded and fought for his life, and won. Mary’s message to Peter, relayed by Mrs Deane, is: “Tell him to sleep, and to dream true.” As she leaves, a now drowsy Peter tells her: “You have brought me peace.”
The lights darken for Scene III while a chorus sings the French folk-song, En revenant d’Auvergne. The lights come up on the second of the opera’s dream scenes. The real Peter, still seen asleep, dreams of his mother, of Mimsey and her mother, the Major and himself as little Gogo. Though it is the dream Gogo who runs up to his mother, it is the real Peter who shouts to his mother: “That is not Gogo! That is only a shadow…a memory.” He beseeches her to come and comfort him. Suddenly Peter sees Mary appear:
They continue to exchange words and finally she tells him of their future: “All through the hours of the night, when our bodies lie in the half-death that men call sleep, we shall be together, you and I. Through the years to come. We shall roam the world together!” The scene continues, with a choral background of another French song, while Peter and Mary watch the dream people leave. They sing of their love until, as the scene ends, they pledge to their future.
Scene IV is the Epilogue: a cell in Newgate Prison thirty years after Peter’s commutation of sentence. He is very ill and lies on a cot, with his hair and beard now white. An aged Mrs Deane enters with the Turnkey. Mrs Deane asks Peter if he knows her, and takes his hand.
She gives him a letter from Mary who wrote it on her deathbed, which tells him they will be meeting soon. As Mrs Deane and the Turnkey leave to find help for the dying Peter, he looks up to see an apparition of Mary, who tells him of their life ahead. The music, which has been solemn, suddenly brightens as Mary says to Peter: “And now awake, beloved; Give me your hand, and come with me. Come away, Peter!” With his arms outstretched Peter reaches out: “Mimsey! Mimsey! I come, beloved, I come!” From this point on the chorus speaks the words of welcome to another world for Peter, who sinks back, motionless upon his cot. Mrs Deane and a doctor arrive to close the eyes of the expired man, but unseen to them, the spirit of Mary appears, reaching out to Peter, now a young Peter, who arises from the cot and goes slowly to Mary as the opera ends with a triumphant chorus and orchestra: “Awake, O wanderer! Arise! The dream is ended. Awake! Arise! Arise and greet the day!”
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