RUDERS The Thirteenth Child
The Thirteenth Child (2016) is Poul Ruders’s fifth opera and the third issued on disc. After The Handmaid’s Tale (1998; 3/01), based on Margaret Atwood’s celebrated, recently televised novel, and the unsettling Kafka’s Trial (2005; 6/06), The Thirteenth Child is lighter in tone and constructed on a smaller scale than either. Its recording history is also more convoluted, recorded in advance of the premiere production in Santa Fe (the third performance of which was interrupted by a lightning storm!) and assembled in stages. Act 1 was recorded in Odense in September 2016, conducted by Benjamin Shwartz, but he had to withdraw at the last moment from Act 2 when his wife went into labour. David Starobin (the founder of Bridge Records and co-librettist with his wife, Becky) took over as the conductor and the recording was completed in December 2018. The whole musical fabric has been knitted together very nicely indeed and this fine recording does not betray its longer-than-usual genesis.
The plot is an expanded version of the Brothers Grimm’s The 12 Princes, in which a king banishes his sons in order to bequeath his kingdom to his unborn 13th child, a princess. Eighteen years later, she discovers what happened and rediscovers her siblings. In the original tale, barely more than a synopsis in truth, none of the characters – save the youngest son, Benjamin – is named, but Ruders and the Starobins have fleshed out the characters of King Hjarne, Queen Gertrude and, most crucially, their daughter Lyra, provided a deeper motivation for Hjarne’s unpaternal actions and created a nasty-piece-of-work villain in Hjarne’s cousin, Drokan. Ruders responded with beguilingly orchestrated music that moves from light to dark before reattaining the light with most people getting what they deserve.
As the title suggests, this is Lyra’s opera, even if she first appears in the middle of Act 1, although thereafter she dominates proceedings. Singing the title-role radiantly, Sarah Shafer leads a strong cast, the other standout performance being Ashraf Sewailam’s evil Drokan. As the Queen, Tamara Mumford enjoys two of the opera’s most exquisite lyrical moments in her elegy for her lost sons at the end of Act 1, and – as her own ghost in Act 2 scene 2 – advising Lyra how to counteract the spell that has turned her brothers into ravens. The end result is often enchanting, dramatic and beautifully rendered on disc.