Although it was intended to be a Metropolitan Opera
premiere, sponsored by grants from the Koussevitzky
and Ford foundations, Virgil Thomson’s last opera,
“Lord Byron,” made its debut at Juilliard in 1972. This
change of venue was due to various factors besetting
a newly composed opera, including a change in
management of the Metropolitan Opera. The Juilliard
premiere was a decidedly “scaled down” version from
the originally planned debut, and I recently heard a
live, world premiere recording of it, from the
Monadnock Music Festival in New Hampshire.
As many people are aware, Virgil Thomson (1896-1989)
was also a well-known music critic, who had written
for the New York Herald Tribune since 1940. He studied
with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and his music reflected
a straightforward, melodic style which was independent
from the “ultra modernists” and their tendencies.
Thomson’s compositional style prevailed in “Lord Byron.”
The plot concerned the return of the famous poet’s body
to London, following his death in Greece. The ghosts
of other famous writers, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley
and John Milton were also present, with many
incidents depicted as flashbacks.
In addition to the libretto, the accompanying booklet
contains essays by the conductor James Bolle, and the
librettist, Jack Larson. Both of them indicated that
there was no “definitive” version of this work, noting
that certain decisions were made for this recording, to
facilitate practicality and dramatic effectiveness.
It stands as a fine recording of this “scaled down”
version of the opera, featuring a small string section,
coupled with the requisite amount of wind and
percussion players. Although the singers weren’t
famous, they did a fine job as expected from
a repertory company, and Maestro Bolle led them
and the orchestra in a well-paced, idiomatic performance.
I wanted to hear “Lord Byron,” because I hadn’t
heard a lot of Virgil Thomson’s music, and this was
a world premiere recording. I must say that listening
to this work did little to alter my opinion that his
music did not reflect a major compositional voice.
Everything works well and is adequately crafted, but
I found this piece to be somewhat of an
inconsequential bore. Nevertheless, I’m still glad
that I took the time to listen to it. Hearing is knowing!