JOUBERT Jane Eyre
There’s some disagreement as to whether Jane Eyre is John Joubert’s seventh or eighth opera but, either way, he is an experienced professional when it comes to writing for the lyric stage and his latest opera only reaffirms the fact. Joubert has plenty of theatrical nous and knows a thing or two about the precarious love triangle that exists between a piece of literature, a piece of music and a story to be told on a stage. In Jane Eyre he takes what he needs from Brontë in order to form ‘an interpretation’ of her novel, not a tracking of it.
In this case, the stage was in a concert hall rather than a theatre: the world premiere of Jane Eyre in October 2016 was a concert performance from which this live recording is taken. It’s frustrating to meet the piece on those terms because, inevitably, there are a good number of residual feelings missing. I have some suspicion too that Joubert’s own process of amending and tightening his score – including the removal of some orchestral interludes – might have wrung out some dramatic weight. Sometimes, for all the keening lyricism of Joubert’s music, the piece feels a little rapid and light.
Not that the scoring is exactly heavy, with an orchestra numbering 35 (though Joubert does unfathomable amounts with it) and an often sepia-toned weave that brings to mind Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (there are other Britten parallels: Peter Grimes for the wedding scene and Billy Budd in Rochester’s Claggart-like vision of his fate). Joubert is his own man, but for the ‘supreme melodist’ described by conductor Kenneth Woods there’s no single, memorable, singable theme that pins down Jane’s journey. Is that a problem in a tonal opera? Discuss.
What Joubert does well is lead you through the narrative; his love for Wagner is there not so much in sound as in his ability to transition, to twist the lens and shift its angle (I’d say his ensembles in this piece have a German sturdiness rather than an Italian liquidity). Kenneth Woods conducts to those strengths and with clear passion. The voices are fine. April Fredrick as Jane sings with delicacy but is ultimately contained and can’t muster the colours in the upper half of her register that she can in the lower part. David Stout as Rochester is commanding but could do with opening up a little at the top. Mark Milhofer is best of all, bringing a bright, manic zeal to St John Rivers.
Perhaps the lead couple would be shown in a better light were they not swamped by a recording that bolsters the orchestra. It also does a disservice to Joubert that Somm’s entire product can feel like a suspicious act of pleading. Copious references to the ‘occasion’ make it feel more like a memento for family and friends than the internationally available document that this opera deserves (a slow, dry interview with Christopher Morley as the bonus track doesn’t help). So is it, as everyone in the booklet wants to tell us, Joubert’s masterpiece? Apparently the composer would be more likely to point to Under Western Eyes, his operatic reaction to Wozzeck and Grimes.