Forum Opera Review

“Priape, Lesbie, Diane, et caetera”.

CD ~ Carmina Catulli

By Laurent Bury, Thursday 11th September 2014

Today, is it reasonable to compose melodies with a supporting text in Latin? In 1943 Carl Orff put to music some of the 116 poems by Catullus, using the title of Catulli Carmina, which probably explains why this song cycle is entitled Carmina Catulli, in order to avoid any confusion. Then, when we learn that it is an American composer who took up the challenge, there is a feeling of apprehension that we are about to hear some of these mellifluous melodies composed to fall softly upon all ears. But, how divinely mistaken are such presumptions, since in the United States there are also those for whom music is not a subject to be taken lightly! Michael Linton was born in 1952 and studied with composers Penderecki and Lukas Foss. His compositions exhibit a substance and a feeling which we often fail to find in the music that reaches us from the other side of the Atlantic.

For each poem, the composer has chosen a specific musical form, stated explicitly as a “seguedille”, “scherzo”, “brindisi”, “recititative and arioso”, and a “chaconne” for example, but he has also song genres from the age of troubadours such as an “alba” and a “serena”, or others from the Occitan Middle Ages such as a “canso” or “maldit comiat”. With his erudition as an asset but never an impediment, Linton’s melodies bring to mind Debussy, Poulenc, Britten, the Second Viennese School and countless other influences by which he shuns monotony and diversifies the atmosphere for each song. In consequence, the piano accompaniment, scintillatingly executed by Jason Paul Peterson, delivers streaming cascades of notes suggestive of Ravel in either « Vivamus mea Lesbia » or mesmerizing swirling rolls in « Minister uetuli puer Falerni ».

With regard to the text, the cycle contains some of the poems selected by Carl Orff. One of the most well-known is “Odi et amo”, which opens both the first and the third part of Catulla Carmina, is chosen by Linton to conclude Carmina Catulli. “Vivamus mea Lesbia” is the second song in the cycle of both composers. Common to both works are « Iucundum, mea vita », « Nulli se dicit mulier », « Amabo, mea dulcis Ipsitilla » and « Nulla potest mulier ». As Carl Orff did, Michael Linton intends to make his Carmina Catulli part of a triptych consisting of a song cycle of 21 Shakespearean sonnets and a set of ghazals by the Persian poet Hafiz for baritone, soprano and orchestra.

In view of the puritanism still prevalent in today’s America, the use of Catullus’ Latin enables some potentially shocking language to be heard in song. In the liner notes, « Pedicabo ego uos et irrumabo » is rendered in French by a discretely chaste euphemism (« Je vous ferai tâter de ma virilité »), whereas the English translation is more direct (« I’ll fuck you up the ass and down the throat »). Amid this gasping eroticism, the French-Irish baritone, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, acquits himself con brio. What a vocal palette is his! It ranges from the most suffocating sensuality expressed in « Nulla potest mulier », sung in a whisper, as is « Mellitos oculos tuos », to raging anger and a lover’s despair. The singer’s every vocal subtlety is explored, even up to falsetto.

The “restored” pronunciation of Latin is obviously not the only acceptable one, especially in English-speaking countries; however there are a few peculiarities. Whilst the pronunciation here is basically that of ecclesiastical Latin, one might ask why “dein” sounds like the German possessive adjective or why Jovis, the genitive of Jupiter is pronounced “iouwis.” But these observations are mere trifles, for here is a superlative showpiece for Edwin Crossley-Mercer, who recorded the cycle before premiering it in New York.

May many other composers entrust Crossley-Mercer with other works every bit as inspired as this one!

(This review originally appeared in September 11th, 2014. It has been translated from the French into English.)


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