Commissioned in 1963 by San Francisco Opera as a vehicle for Maria Callas, Peggy Glanville-Hicks’s last grand opera Sappho never saw the light of day, rejected on the grounds of “unacceptable dramatic timing” and a surfeit of “modal tonality”. It was thus spared the fate of Walton’s Troilus and Cressida and Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, two dangerously tonal operas that flopped in a musical world where the avant-garde was on the up and up. We have young Australian conductor and impresario Jennifer Condon to thank for deciphering the manuscripts and bringing this important work into the recording studio, just scraping into Glanville-Hicks’s 2012 centenary. Her silver tongue has even coaxed this particularly starry cast to give of their art for the sheer love of the music!
For her second ancient Greek opera, Glanville-Hicks adapted a verse play by Lawrence Durrell, collaborating first by correspondence and subsequently at her home in Athens. Sappho, then, is blessed with a beautifully poetic libretto, packed with memorable phrases and singable lines. The plot is cursed with a lack of forward momentum, but what it lacks in dramatic impetus it makes up for in meditative insight. Ironically, Durrell’s Sappho doesn’t chase the young maidens but is a middle-aged poetess. Bored with married life, she is romantically torn for the last time between two brothers; one a man of action, one a man of the spirit. An incestuous twist reveals her to be the long lost daughter of her elderly husband but this is a side issue in a work about love and creativity in the face of encroaching age and experience.
Musically, Sappho is a most attractive work, full of atmospheric, modal harmonies with pentatonic effects adding an exotic air. Some fine highlights compensate for occasional moments of patchy inspiration. Condon marshals her considerable forces with sensitivity. Martin Homrich and Scott MacAllister as the love interests sing ardently and there are fine contributions from Wolfgang Koch, Roman Trekel and a characterful John Tomlinson. The Germans in the cast manage the English text pretty well. The one disappointment is probably the biggest name: Deborah Polaski captures the world-weary quality in the title role but the voice is less than steady, her diction sometimes occluded. This major release deserves a strong recommendation, and Condon deserves a medal.