WEIR The Vanishing Bridegroom
It is going to be interesting to see how the newly appointed Master of the Queen’s Music responds to the monumental demands of her post. Rather than fanfare and bombast, Judith Weir has always excelled at writing music in miniature, and her skill at pinpointing an idea, an atmosphere, a musical realm in a few deft strokes is fully on display in The Vanishing Bridegroom. It has taken the opera nearly a quarter of a century (it was premiered in Glasgow in 1990) to take its place in the CD catalogue but by and large the wait has been worth it.
Even though it barely lasts over 80 minutes, this is not really one opera but three small ones linked together – a trio of Scottish folk tales, succinctly told. All three deal with relationships but love barely has time to put in an appearance before greed, desertion and moral degeneration sour the tone. A bleak atmosphere pervades the opera, yet the score is full of life. The composers usually cited as influences on Weir are Britten, Stravinsky and some of the minimalists but perhaps it was seeing The Cunning Little Vixen just beforehand that brought Janáček most vividly to mind: vital germs of music are constantly springing into life, only to flicker and die a minute or two later. There are magical moments – the sense of stepping into a numinous world at the start of the first story’s ‘The Passion’, the ominous landscape of the misty, mysterious hill in the second – but doubts set in the further one listens. Weir is less successful at shaping her opera as a whole and there is not much sense of a destination. For all its passing fascinations, The Vanishing Bridegroom is less than the sum of its parts.
The recording is taken from a live performance at the Barbican in 2008, part of a BBC weekend devoted to Weir’s music. I can imagine a smaller-scale performance making a better effect – less sense of the singers trying to fill a large hall, orchestral timbres more precise, the words clearer – but this is an important omission in Weir’s recorded catalogue very decently filled.