Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tobias and the Angel

I hadn't given much thought to what had been my favourite album of 2010, which as it turns out is just as well, because I didn't hear my favourite album of 2010 until about a month ago.
Jonathan Dove's Tobias and the Angel is a "church opera" written in 1999, and Chandos's recording is of a subsequent Young Vic touring production. The story is from the Old Testament (not the Apocrypha. The Council of Trent confirmed it to be canonical. Take that, Protestants!) and is set in Nineveh. Tobit is a man who risks severe punishment by arranging proper burials for Jews killed by the king; for his pains, he's rewarded by being blinded by sparrows shitting in his eyes. Now unable to work, he decides to call in a debt from a relative in Ecbatane. His son Tobias, currently something of a waster, offers to make the journey, on which he is accompanied by a mysterious stranger who (spoiler alert for the very slow) eventually turns out to be the titular angel, Raphael. Having had an odd encounter with a giant fish, they arrive at Ecbatane, where Tobias immediately falls in love with Sara, daughter of the man he's to collect the money from. Unbeknownst to Tobias, Sara's already been married multiple times, with all her husbands dying in their sleep - she's actually possessed by a demon named Ashmodeus. I will leave you to anticipate whether the demon gets exorcised, Tobit gets his sight back, or Raphael reveals his true self to general expressions of awe. And whether the giant fish has anything to do with anything.
Of course, the term "church opera" might suggest Britten to you, and certainly Dove's work does have the sort of music-for-the-people nature of Noye's Fludde and the like. Don't think "staid and holy". If there's a spectrum of staged music stretching from Parsifal to We Will Rock You then perhaps Tobias and the Angel is somewhere in the happy middle ground, along with, say, Stephen Sondheim (follow the undergrown path to yesterday's post). Some of the tunes are highly catchy (Jewish folk music style) and some of the music is inordinately beautiful. There are lots of stand-out moments, such as the cheeky children's chorus of sparrows ("Pee-oo! That was good") or the evocative music accompanying Tobias and Raphael as they set out on their journey. "Popular appeal" is rarely this appealing. Everything flows together wonderfully, and at CD-length it's the perfect size for its story - no padding, and no sense of cramming too much in. And the orchestration is spot-on.

Here's a 2-minute audio clip from the final scene, with Raphael sung by countertenor James Laing:

(Incidentally, I also recommend Chandos's previous Dove opera release, Siren Song, the tale of a sailor in love with a woman he's never met).

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