This is one of those operas whose title evokes irony right at the start. Like Ruggero Leoncavallo‘s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) and Virgil Thomson‘s “Four Saints in Three Acts” the title Certitude and Joy hardly seems to evoke the right emotions in this harrowing story taken right from the headlines of a case in 2005 in which a mother kills her children and dumps their bodies in San Francisco Bay. This is contrasted with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in which God tells Abraham to slay his son. Of course God stopped Abraham in the bible story but that was not the case with the more recent story.
Erling Wold (1958- ) is a composer of whom I had been only distantly aware. He is a California native and has studied with Andrew Imbrie, Gerard Grisey and John Chowning. That right there gives you a clue to this man’s compositional range and skills. He completed a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1987 and has worked for Yamaha creating new synthesizer programs in addition to pursuing his musical interests.
The San Francisco Bay Area has such a rich and varied musical culture that it is not all that surprising to me that I hadn’t come to know this fascinating composer. And it’s taken me a while to absorb enough about Mr. Wold to feel that I could write something intelligent about this CD.
The composer’s web site (click here) contains a plethora of scores and sound recordings of this prolific and interesting composer. And there are numerous offerings on You Tube and there is a blog linked on his web site in which he discusses a variety of topics not the least of which is his own music. It seems that he has created several operas including one based on William S. Burroughs’ early but long suppressed novel, Queer. His chamber operas, A Little Girl Contemplates Taking the Veil and his opera on Pontius Pilate illustrate his interest in both religious and political themes.
I won’t even try to get into his orchestral, chamber and solo piano works. That is the job of a future blog which I can assure you will happen. But the main point of this blog is to look at this most recent offering of his chamber opera Certitude and Joy.
As best as I can describe in words, Wold’s accompaniment figures remind me of Philip Glass or John Adams at times but he is not a simple derivative of these composers. His vocal lines, almost all sung as opposed to spoken, are more like recitatives than arias and suggest a more ensemble feel as opposed to the grand opera style of arias, duets, etc.
His libretto, ripped from the headlines so to speak, is a combination of philosophical musings, imagined dialogue and commentary from texts as diverse as Aldous Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and the more pedestrian musings of newspaper columns. I think there is some affinity for Robert Ashley’s mysterious texts but again nothing derivative. The work is perhaps political as social commentary but not as social protest.
What is important is that this work, thinly scored (though hardly thin in sound) for two pianos and a cast of singers, speaks directly and affectingly to the audience. He manages to tell this tale in a fairly straightforward manner with occasional digressions for philosophical commentary. But he never loses control of the narrative which flows on drawing you in to this sad story and leaves you with the questions he raises, albeit rhetorically, about the nature of religious revelation, mental illness and the current state of our society and our world. This is a tall order but Wold manages to fill it with just the right amount of drama and music that leaves the listener (and viewer if you see it live in person or on You Tube) seemingly with exactly the emotions I think the composer wrestled with in writing it.
Like the aforementioned Four Saints and Cavalleria, Certitude and Joy is a listener friendly opera with messages that are disturbing and go to the core of what it means to be human. The performances by the fine duo piano team of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman (ZOFO) and singers Laura Bohn, Talya Patrick, Jo Vincent Parks, Kerry Mehling, Tranvis Santell Rowland with Bob Ernst, speaker and a cameo by the composer (I’ll leave that for listeners to find). The beautiful recording on Paul Dresher’s MinMax label is distributed by Starkland and is available on Amazon and other outlets. A worthwhile experience for all lovers of contemporary opera and drama.