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John Sheppard
MusicWeb International, December 2009

Just as the more conventional nineteenth century opera composers expected certain types of scenes and were able to slot in appropriate music, so Taylor knows what is expected at each point in this opera. He follows the best if not the most recent examples by Puccini, Massenet and others…it is good to come across an opera as effectively written as this and I can imagine it still making a powerful impression in an imaginative production. Provided that you are not expecting more nor less than the musical equivalent of a “well made play” there is much to enjoy here and it is good to have the chance to fill in an important gap in our, or at least my, knowledge of American operas of this period.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, November 2009

Get out the handkerchiefs: this is a real tear-jerker!…a beautiful story beautifully told. The recording, from two performances in 1999, makes a strong case for it. Giffrey’s beautiful tenor voice, his excellent diction and sensitivity to the text, bring Peter alive in a stunningly emotional performance…The Act 2 recognition scene and the final rapturous reunion of the platonic lovers are heart-breaking; trumpets peal and dream voices (angels) soar. Zeller sounds almost too kind as the evil colonel. Summers is a sympathetic Mrs Deane. Austin in emotionally strong, singing with much beauty in a touching performance of a beloved family friend who has grown old and no longer recognizes Peter. The Seattle forces, orchestra and chorus, are a glorious part of all the musical rapture—expert, precise, and passionate.

Howard Goldstein
BBC Music Magazine, November 2009

Taylor’s blend of Debussyan harmonies and Puccinian melodrama perfectly suits George DuMaurier’s Wagnerian story of Ibbetson and his married childhood friend Mary, who can unite only in the dream world. Anthony Dean Griffey, at the beginning of his international career, and Lauren Flanagan shine as the doomed couple, and the contributions of the Seattle Symphony and Chorus are outstanding.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2009

Most folks remember Deems Taylor (1885–1996, born Joseph Deems Taylor) as the MC for Walt Disney’s groundbreaking Fantasia (1940), which greatly popularized classical music, and was the first movie with a stereophonic soundtrack. Born in New York City and pretty much self-taught, Taylor was not only an influential music critic and radio commentator, but a composer of considerable merit.

He’s best remembered for his fanciful orchestral suite Through the Looking Glass (1917–21, not currently available) based on Lewis Caroll’s (1832–1898) nonsense fairy tale. But in its day Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson (1930–31), with a libretto by the composer in both English and French, was extremely popular. As a matter of fact, following its première in 1931 and up through 1936 it was the most frequently staged American opera at the Met (twenty-two performances) until George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess entered the repertoire in 1985. Those who enjoyed Naxos’ previous release of Howard Hanson’s (1896–1981) Merry Mount (1933, 8.669012–13) won’t want to be without it!

In three acts Taylor’s opera is based on an 1891 Victorian era novel of the same name by French-born British author George du Maurier (1834–1896). Basically a tale of two star-crossed lovers, various psychological concepts regarding dreams and the unconscious are also present. Consequently one can’t help wondering if Taylor was familiar with Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), which might have triggered his interest in the novel. Read the detailed plot synopsis in the album booklet, or the complete libretto that’s available on-line, and see what you think.

With a few invigorating bars from the orchestra the first act curtain goes up on an imposing room in an English country home where a wealthy young widow, Mrs. Deane, is giving a ball. Each of the main characters is introduced, including the overbearing Colonel Ibbetson and the ill-fated sweethearts of this drama, Peter, who’s the Colonel’s nephew, and Mary, the Duchess of Towers.

Act highlights include a poem sung in French by the Colonel, and a lovely exchange between Peter and Mrs. Deane in which he tells her about his youthful years in Paris. It was there that he met his childhood sweetheart Mimsey, who taught him “dreaming true” where two people can enter each other’s dreams. There’s also a soaring aria for the Duchess, shortly after which she sees Peter and comments to one of the other guests that he reminds her of a beloved playmate she once had in Paris named Gogo. The act closes with an engaging waltz that doubles as an ensemble number involving all the main characters.

A bustling prelude opens the second act, which is set in a Paris inn. Peter has come to visit his childhood haunts, and the first scene is for the most part sung in French. It features a delightful exchange between Peter and an old Napoleonic veteran, who knew him as a child, during which he sees Mary the Duchess passing in a carriage. In the second scene he falls asleep and has one of those “true dreams” (see above). It ends dramatically with an orchestral storm, which may bring to mind the one in Janácek’s (1854–1928) Kát’a Kabanová (1921), as Peter rushes to defend his mother from the advances of his uncle (see the libretto for details).

The third and final scene opens as the storm gradually abates and Peter awakens to find Mary taking refuge from the elements in the inn. The impassioned duet that follows is one of the highpoints of the opera. In it the two realize they just met in Peter’s recent dream where they’ve discovered that as children they were Gogo and Mimsey. But Mary cautions him they must never see each other again, not even in dreams, and the second act curtain descends.

The third act is in four scenes and opens with Peter having returned from Paris only to be shown a letter from his uncle where the Colonel had claimed Peter’s mother was his mistress and he was his son. In a masterfully constructed ensemble number involving Peter, his uncle, Mrs. Deane and her mother, the tension mounts and boils over as he strikes the Colonel with his cane, killing him. A fateful dead-man-walking passacaglia then ushers in the second scene where Peter is in prison and about to be hanged.

At the last moment Mrs. Deane rushes in with the news that his sentence has been commuted to life, which greatly distresses him because he only wants to die. She consoles him with a message from Mary that he should sleep and “dream true.” The scene ends as he sits in the prison chaplain’s chair and nods off to the strains of a gorgeous French folk song intoned by the chorus.

The chorus continues with an additional ditty as the third scene, another dream sequence, begins. Peter is back in his childhood surroundings, and Mary joins him in an absolutely stunning duet followed by another folk chorus. They finally kiss and the dream scene darkens and ends.

In the fourth and final scene, an epilogue, Peter is dying with Mrs Deane by his side. She tells him Mary is dead, and as his life ebbs away, an apparition of her becomes visible above his prison cot. The opera then ends with a extremely moving tearjerker of a duet for the lovers, and a final euphoric chorus spiriting them away to a higher existence!

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and soprano Lauren Flanagan are superb as Peter and Mary with equally fine singing from mezzo-soprano Lori Summers and baritone Richard Zeller in the roles of Mrs. Deane and Colonel Ibbetson. The support provided by the rest of the cast along with the Seattle Symphony Chorale and Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwartz couldn’t be better.

Derived from a pair of critically acclaimed 1999 concert performances that must have been subjected to some intricate editing, what we have here sounds amazingly good. The soundstage as well as the balance between the soloists, chorus and orchestra seems ideal, and there’s only an occasional hint of extraneous noise except for the well deserved applause at the very end of the opera. You’ll feel like clapping too!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

Receiving thirty-six curtain calls on its opening night, Peter Ibbetson was the most performed American opera in the 1930’s, the romantic story of dreams providing escapism in the days of the great depression. Born and raised in New York City, Joseph Deems Taylor showed he had a ready gift for composing melodies when he entered university, and for a time seemed to be heading for Broadway. He was grinding out a living as a composer when the position of music critic of the New York World became vacant, and it was as a critic—having dropped Joseph from his name—that he became an American household name. In 1930 he began work on his second opera, Peter Ibbetson, a fashionable style of romantic story written by George Du Maurier, in which dream sequences play a major part, the two childhood sweethearts, the main protagonists, only united in death. Audiences were delighted, but critics were less enthusiastic, seeing it as throwback to Puccini, Debussy and Massenet. Today the story will bring a wry smile as a product of a bygone age. even the names of the two lovers, Mimsey and Peter, reek with falsity. Yet those who want to sample an American Puccini will be well satisfied, and remember that American opera that followed used this as its starting point. Having slipped into obscurity as a relic of a bygone era, it was here restaged in Seattle in 1999 with a cast—little known outside of the States—that have voices with the right tonal quality for their roles. Anthony Dean Griffey’s light tenor and immaculate diction makes a likeable Peter; rather sacrificing words to produce beautiful sounds, Lauren Flanigan takes Mary (or Mimsey as she was known) and Lori Summers sings the seemingly helpful Mrs. Dean. Richard Zeller takes Colonel Ibbetson, the part created by the legendary Lawrence Tibbett, and is the character who brings such grief. The Seattle orchestra and chorus, conducted by Gerard Schwarz, contribute much to the success of the performance, and there is little noise from the audience in well-balanced sound.

Rebecca Paller
Opera News, August 2009

Conductor Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony perform with such conviction and technical accuracy that it’s hard to imagine a better reading of the score, and the members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale sound sublime in the French folk tunes in Act III, Scene 3 (“En revenant d’Auvergne”), as Peter dreams of his youth in Paris.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey gives a wrenching performance as the ultra-sensitive, tormented Peter. His voice is rich and pliant, his diction superb. Notwithstanding a few pitch problems, soprano Lauren Flanigan brings compelling dramatic power and expressiveness to the role of Mary, Duchess of Towers. (She has that wonderful Barbara Cook-like trait of wearing her heart on her sleeve, which adds a special layer of poignancy to Peter and Mary’s Act II recognition scene.) Baritone Richard Zeller as Colonel Ibbetson, Peter’s evil uncle, nails his charming Act I aria (sung in French, with a text drawn from poetry by De Musset), but elsewhere he is a tad dull (particularly when compared with Tibbett’s snippets on the 1934 broadcast). Mezzo-soprano Lori Summers offers a lovely, sympathetic portrait of Peter’s friend Mrs. Deane, and bass Charles Robert Austin makes a deep impression in a touching scene in Act II as Major Duquesnois, a beloved family acquaintance from Peter’s childhood who has grown old and fails to recognize him.

The complete libretto is not included with the CD but can be found at I suggest you print it out and read along as you listen to Peter Ibbetson in one sitting, with all those pesky real-world electronics turned off. You will no doubt find yourself getting a teeny bit misty-eyed as Peter dies and meets up with Mary in the great beyond.

Joseph Newsome
Voix des Arts, July 2009

On the afternoon of Saturday, 7 February 1931, New York’s Metropolitan Opera premiered a specially-commissioned new opera by one of America’s finest composers, Deems Taylor, with the remarkable cast of tenor (and future MET General Manager) Edward Johnson in the title role, soprano Lucrezia Bori as the Duchess of Towers, and baritone Lawrence Tibbett as Colonel Ibbetson. The commission for Peter Ibbetson followed another opera composed by Taylor for the MET, The King’s Henchman, both works having stemmed from an initiative headed by the MET’s General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza and influential Board Chairman Otto Kahn to bring more indigenous American opera to the MET.

At the time of the composition of Peter Ibbetson, Deems Taylor was among America’s most successful composers of serious music, having enjoyed in addition to the MET commission for The King’s Henchman (the libretto of which was the work of Edna St Vincent Millay) success with concert music and musical theatre scores. Critics who objected to the Eurocentric slant of The King’s Henchman, the basis for which was drawn from an Anglo-Saxon source related to the legend of Tristan and Yseult, were surely baffled by Taylor’s selection for the subject of his next MET opera of a Victorian British novel, George du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson. Taylor decided to write his own libretto for Peter Ibbetson, ultimately collaborating with British actress Constance Collier, star of a Broadway adaptation of the novel. Du Maurier’s novel was also adapted for the cinema via a film by Henry Hathaway, with Gary Cooper as Peter. Rather than an authentically American story, Taylor chose to set a tale of confused national identities, half-remembered childhood affections, and the ethereal, often dangerous realm—a sort of psychological Purgatory—between dreams and reality. Despite dissent from a few critical voices, Peter Ibbetson was warmly received by MET audiences, garnering twenty-two performances over several Depression-era seasons. Licia Albanese studied the role of Mary with Bori, but the opera was not revived at the MET during her career.

Dramatically, Peter Ibbetson explores the separation of childhood [French] friends Gogo Pasquier and Mimsey Seraskier and their eventual reunion [in Britain] as Peter Ibbetson and Mary, Duchess of Towers. Young Gogo is claimed upon the sudden deaths of his parents by his uncle Colonel Ibbetson and, renamed Peter, is relocated to Britain. Having become a promising architect, Peter encounters as a young man the Duchess of Towers, who is eventually revealed to be Mimsey, the closest friend of his youth who taught him to ‘dream true.’ Mimsey/Mary is married, of course, and unavailable to Peter though the deep affection from their childhood resumes as if uninterrupted. Reacting to the Colonel’s claims that he is Peter’s biological father, Peter strikes and unwittingly kills the Colonel. Mary’s intervention ensures that Peter’s death sentence is commuted, and for the thirty years of Peter’s imprisonment he and Mary visit one another nightly in their dreaMs When at last Mary does not come to Peter in slumber, he has already sensed that Mary has died when a friend comes to give him the news. Peter dies, and the opera ends with an image of the again-young Peter rising to meet Mary. Metaphorically, there are kinships with Billy Budd, George Lloyd’s Iernin, Der Fliegende Holländer, and even Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet in the notions of an innocent’s righteous anger leading to crime and condemnation, the emotional chasms separating cultures, the archetypal redemptive Feminine, and the development of infantile affections into absolute passions. Taylor complicates the piece somewhat with a libretto that mixes English and French texts, with Peter largely reverting to French when he returns in the second act to scenes from his childhood, and extensive use of French folksongs. Though fine in its own right, Peter Ibbetson just misses the mysterious profundity and brilliance of the best operas that deal with similar themes, not least Tristan und Isolde (death as the ultimate, inevitable purification of love) and Peter Grimes (sacrificial love of a woman as the salvation of a misplaced man).

Musically, there is little to identify Peter Ibbetson as distinctly or recognizably America, but there is much fine music in the score. The dream sequences are in the vein of the Walk to the Paradise Garden in A Village Romeo and Juliet, the music not as masterful as Delius’ but nonetheless beautiful and imaginative. Through-composed in late-Romantic tonality, the score makes use of a variety of forms and compositional techniques, including a memorable waltz in the first-act ball scene. A folk tune that begins in the woodwinds in the second scene of Act II develops briefly into what is almost an Offenbach-esque galop. Set pieces are few but excellent when they come. Essentially an extended tone poem, the score nevertheless avoids the flaw displayed by many twentieth-century operas of treating voices solely as instruments within the cacophony. Vocal lines are generally given freedom from the dense orchestral textures, and there are many beautiful if ultimately unmemorable melodies. As with many scores, the music is at its best when the means and intended effects are simplest, as in the gorgeous and sadly brief interlude (with turns in the woodwinds straight out of Wagner; the later Storm Interlude likewise threatens to erupt into the Walkürenritt) after Mary’s and Peter’s ‘Give me your hands’ in the second act. In structure and even in tonal content, the opera’s choral finale closely resembles the closing pages of Die Meistersinger. Peter Ibbetson is not a great score in the manner of mature Mozart, Wagner, or Strauss, but it is a far finer piece than many of the operas composed in the seventy-eight years since its premiere.

The musical forces in the present recording, taken from a pair of 1999 Seattle concert performances, seem committed en masse to making the strongest possible case for Peter Ibbetson. Choral passages are not always composed with the utmost finesse, but the Seattle Symphony Chorale bring endearing conviction to their contributions. Especially in quieter moments, they often make very lovely sounds. In louder, more concerted passages it is possible to wish for the sake of clarity that their numbers were slightly fewer, with a stronger complement of voices among the higher registers. The Seattle Symphony again confirm their standing among American’s finest symphonic ensembles, playing with unperturbed excellence that illuminates Taylor’s generally uncomplicated but learned orchestrations. The woodwinds make an especially strong showing, seizing every opportunity for melodic eloquence with relish. Presiding over the performance is the Symphony’s Music Director Gerard Schwarz (who is also the Music Director of North Carolina’s Eastern Music Festival), whose considerable operatic experience is apparent in his coordination of choral, orchestral, and solo vocal forces. Maestro’s Schwarz’s approach draws out the grandeur of the orchestral interludes but also allows plenty of space in which lyrical phrases are allowed to expand romantically without risking sluggishness. Likely because of the live concert performance provenance of the recording, balances among chorus, orchestra, and soloists are not always ideal, but Maestro Schwarz capitalizes on the abilities of his performers to shape a performance that on the whole conveys something of the impact that the score had on MET audiences in the 1930’s.

Secondary roles are mostly cast from strength, with mezzo-sopranos Lori Summers and Emily Lunde as Mrs. Deane and her mother, Mrs. Glyn, singing very well. Taking several roles, baritone Barry Johnson reveals a fine voice and a talent for differentiating various personas even in the context of a concert performance. As the footman who announces arriving guests in the first-act ball scene, tenor John Obourn also reveals a fine voice, a lovely light tenor that would gladly have been heard more in the course of the performance. Basses Charles Robert Austin and Eugene Buchholz, soprano Terri Johnson, and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Gronlund make the most of their small assignments. Only tenor Paul Gudas, whose alert singing discloses a distinct wobble, falls slightly short of the standard set among the comprimario singers.

The role of Colonel Ibbetson is endowed with a de facto aria in the first act, a poetic recitation not unlike Andrea Chénier’s Improvviso. Sung by Lawrence Tibbett, the piece is sure to have made a great effect as it is composed to show the full range of the baritone voice to advantage. Comparisons with Tibbett are unflattering and unfair to Richard Zeller, who sings the Colonel’s music with a strong, all-purpose voice. In fact, Mr Zeller’s performance is very good on the whole, the menace of the Colonel brought to the fore without undue snarling. High passages are trying for Mr Zeller, but he never shrinks from the music even when his vocal comfort is compromised. He rises to the first-act aria with complete dedication, the results compelling if ultimately not of Tibbett-like force. There is little in the libretto that indicates what motivates the Colonel’s actions, but Mr Zeller faces every challenge head-on and enacts a properly nasty personage without resorting to ugly tone.

As the dream-mongering Duchess of Towers, soprano Lauren Flanigan finds another in her series of congenially quirky roles. Mary’s music is composed in the manner of many twentieth-century soprano roles, which is to say that the conversational passages are almost exclusively in the upper-middle register. Occasional moments of increased passion inspire flights into the highest reaches of the conventional soprano range. Despite occasional sustained tones that threaten to lose stability, Ms Flanigan satisfies in all registers. Ms Flanigan’s tone is not consistently rounded in the tradition of Bori (or, for that matter, Albanese), but she brings great power to passages requiring descents into her lower register and displays a seemingly natural affinity for the style of the writing. Ms Flanigan’s career has seen her ensconced as leading prima donna of the New York City Opera, perpetuating the legacy of Beverly Sills even by taking on Sills’ greatest City Opera challenge, Donizetti’s ‘Tudor’ trilogy. In Mary’s first-act aria, ‘I could never dedicate my days,’ Ms Flanigan’s voice in fact sounds eerily like Beverly Sills’, a likeness than in itself indicates the fine qualities of Ms Flanigan’s singing. The wondrous beauty of Beverly Sills’ voice, particularly in pianissimo tones in the upper register, is missing in Ms Flanigan’s singing, but this is not to suggest that she does not offer a beguiling performance. The aforementioned first-act aria is capped with a magnificently pulse-quickening top C, and the instinctive use of portamento throughout Ms Flanigan’s performance is refreshing. Ms Flanigan brings dignity and fervor to her delivery of Mary’s occasionally hokey lines, and in her performance the music somehow seems more distinguished than it perhaps can truly claim to be. Though not as important as many of her other stirring performances, Ms Flanigan’s performance in this recording can be remembered alongside Beverly Sills’ Baby Doe as a significant performance of an American operatic heroine.

In his music for the name-part, Taylor came closest to creating a role in the mold of the tenor roles composed by Benjamin Britten for Sir Peter Pears. In Peter Ibbetson’s music, there are elements of the lovesick but slightly ridiculous Albert Herring, the not-quite-real Peter Quint, the idealistic Captain Vere, and the terrifically troubled Peter Grimes. This performance gains immeasurably from the singing of one of the current generation’s greatest Britten interpreters, North Carolina-born tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. Every emotional facet of the rather strange Peter Ibbetson is fully realized in Mr Griffey’s performance, but the most arresting component of the performance is the sheer beauty of Mr Griffey’s tone. Possessing impressive stamina and reserves of power, the basic timbre of Mr Griffey’s voice is very attractive, a core of lyrical sweetness softening the robust masculinity of the sound. As Peter Ibbetson, this combination of tonal allure and firmness brings a very persuasive profile to the role. Equally adept at conveying the young man touchingly nostalgic for the environs he knew in his childhood and the proud man capable of violence in defense of his family honor, Mr Griffey devotes himself vocally and emotionally to the role, a feat that is especially admirable in the context of concert performances. Peter lacks the opportunities for solo display enjoyed by Mary and the Colonel, but he scarcely ever leaves the stage throughout the opera’s duration. Recordings are often pale substitutes for live performances, even when their sources are ‘live,’ but it is possible in Mr Griffey’s performance on this recording to genuinely experience Peter Ibbetson’s journey, conveyed with ringing, honeyed tone. This is a sublime performance from a singer whose artistic stature grows with every project he undertakes.

Even a performance with as many fine qualities as this recording boasts is unlikely to return Peter Ibbetson to the repertory. For home listening, however, this recording proves an enjoyable alternative when one tires of hearing the same Verdi and Puccini operas again and again. Deems Taylor was a skillful composer who had keen senses of dramatic timing and careful shaping of vocal declamation. This is not a score that is worthy to be played in the company (or instead) of the genre’s greatest masterworks, but among American operas which can unhesitatingly be said to be better? Vanessa, perhaps, or Susannah: they are decidedly an endangered species, whichever they are. In this recording, the performance by Anthony Dean Griffey is strong enough to suggest that Peter Ibbetson is far more than a musical curiosity.

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