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RANDS: Vincent

CD Button Kruse, Conyers, Leonard; Burchett, Perkins, Eck, Linville, Walton, Morstein, Grundy; Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra, Fagen. Libretto online. Naxos 8.669037-38 (2)

Recordings Vincent Rands Cover 817
Critics Choice Button 1015 

BERNARD RANDS (b. 1934) started thinking about Vincent van Gogh as the subject of an opera in the early 1970s, when he happened to be in Amsterdam for the opening of the Van Gogh Museum. Forty years later, he had the opportunity to realize his concept when Indiana University offered him a commission for the one-hundredth anniversary of its Jacobs School of Music. Vincent, the towering result of this long gestation period, received its world premiere in April 2011 and is superbly captured in this release from Naxos.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Rands and his prolific librettist, J. D. McClatchy, dramatize van Gogh’s life as a series of failures—his attempt to sell paintings in his uncle’s gallery; his efforts to please his father by serving as a missionary; his disastrous falling-out with Gauguin, whom van Gogh had mistakenly believed was an artistic soul-mate; and a few romantic misfires. With the recurring line “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?” McClatchy even presents the artist as a Christ figure. Rands’s music is tonally and dramatically edgy, deploying a sophisticated contemporary vocabulary that vividly brings the psychologically complex van Gogh to life. Emotionally, the opera sometimes lacks variety, because the epileptic, underappreciated, mentally unstable artist led a life of consistent anguish, at least as depicted here. The churning orchestra always seems to indicate impending calamity or mental turbulence. Fortunately, Rands is continually resourceful in finding ways to depict the almost omnipresent tension; his score swirls with pointed instrumental detail and coloristic ingenuity. And the audience gets relief in episodes such as the bawdy, rousing drinking song in the Café du Tambourin, where van Gogh meets Gauguin, and in occasional hymnlike chorales. McClatchy’s prose libretto—which incorporates excerpts from van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo—includes the line “This is why a man paints—to see the world in his mind.” Rands’s score is an excellent aural depiction of that fertile and tormented mental landscape.

In the title role, Christopher Burchett sings with a fervent, plangent baritone that conjures the troubled artist particularly well. When Vincent expounds on the relationship between his religious and artistic beliefs, Burchett evinces great authority and conviction. Vincent’s only enduring relationship is with the ever-loyal Theo. (Almost everyone else ends up telling Vincent, “No one needs you.”) As Theo, Will Perkins uses his sympathetic, forthright tenor to emerge as the voice of reason, particularly when defending Vincent against their domineering father, played by Jason Eck, whose marbled bass-baritone conjures the kind of stern patriarch you don’t want to cross. When Theo visits Vincent as he’s dying in a hospital, Vincent says of his later-celebrated sunflowers, “It was how I painted gratitude, Theo.” This is the opera’s most moving moment.

Women don’t feature significantly in Vincent, but Kelly Kruse, as Sien, a prostitute with whom van Gogh briefly cohabited, has an expressively pulsing soprano, and she joins with Vincent and Theo in a fraught, lyrical trio that is a high point of Act I. Soprano Jami Leonard has a remarkably clear, attractive sound as Marguerite, who is not pleased that her father (the likable baritone Christopher Grundy) is letting the recently deinstitutionalized Vincent live and paint in their house. As Agostina, the Café proprietress and a paramour of Vincent’s, Laura Conyers has a warm, alluring mezzo, and her aria is exotic and seductive. As Gauguin, Adam Walton, a rakish bass-baritone, is briefly responsive to Agostina’s flirtatiousness, but his first love is clearly art. Later, in the Act II “breakup” scene with van Gogh, Walton develops, to great effect, an unsettlingly hostile edge. Tenors Andrew Morstein, as a kindly asylum doctor, and Steven Linville, as Toulouse-Lautrec, are full of character.

The Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra is spectacular under Arthur Fagen; the student instrumentalists render Rands’s finely etched score and its cascading musical detail with a level of precision that any professional orchestra could be proud of. The Opera Chorus performs quite well in some inventive set pieces. Rands and McClatchy have every reason to be enormously pleased with this stellar recording of their bold, original and memorable opera.  —Joshua Rosenblum 

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