FLAGELLO Piper of Hamelin – Jonathan Strasser, cond; Bob McGrath (Narrator); Brace Negron (Piper); Troy Doney (Mayor of Hamelin); Ch & O of Manhattan School of Music Preparatory Division – NEWPORT NCD 60153 (49:33 &) Live: New York City, 3/13-14/99
The Piper of Hamelin is the fifth of Flagello’s six operas, but — not surprisingly — the first to appear on a commercial recording. It was composed in 1969-70 for performance by the Preparatory (pre-college) Division of the Manhattan School of Music, the school where Flagello was closely associated– first as a student, then as a faculty member — for more than thirty years. The opera has been mounted a number of times since its 1970 premiere, but the production at hand marks the retirement of the composer’s widow, Dianne Flagello, from her position as director of the school’s Preparatory Division for the past 25 years. (Mrs. Flagello has worked tirelessly and vigorously as a devoted advocate of her former husband’s music for many years.)
As an opera intended to be enjoyed by and performed (largely) by children, The Piper is not only tailored for ease of execution, but also reflects a certain simplification of the composer’s musical style, as well as an overall lightheartedness of approach, with numerous musical “in-jokes” and some rather clumsy attempts at humor. Most significantly, Flagello replaced Robert Browning’s rather harsh and vengeful ending with one reflecting reparation and forgiveness. In Browning’s poem, the townspeople refuse to pay the Piper the agreed-upon fee for ridding the town of rats, so in retaliation the Piper entrances the town’s children, and whisks them away forever. In Flagello’s version, after despairing over the loss of their children the townspeople relent, and pay the Piper his fee. The Piper then reveals himself as the Spirit of Music and brings back the children.
Yet despite this overall “softening” on many levels, which occasionally verges on sentimentality, Flagello’s opera reveals a fundamental sincerity and authenticity of feeling, not to mention the craftsmanship of a master hand in shaping a work of considerable musical substance. A single motif, heard at the very outset, generates all of the opera’s thematic material, while unifying its contrapuntal fabric. Instead of emphasizing themes like betrayal and vengeance, Flagello has focused on the transformational and redemptive powers of music, with the Piper emerging as a not-terribly-veiled Christ-figure. All in all, the solidity of the work’s structure, and the sheer expressiveness of its music, fueled by a fervent sense of spirituality, combine to create a delightful, thoroughly convincing, and very moving experience.
Flagello chose a rather orthodox structural concept for the opera, framing its three short acts with excerpts from Browning’s 1849 poem (read effectively for this production by Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath — also an MSM alumnus). In between these readings, the story is enacted through recitatives and choral numbers, with only a couple of arias toward the end, leading to an ecstatic apotheosis created ingeniously from a cleverly-designed cumulative ostinato. The third act is preceded by a 5-minute “Intermezzo” that elaborates the emotional strands salient at that point in the opera through purely musical means into an autonomous entity that could easily be programmed on its own, along the lines of the “Intermezzo” from Cavalleria Rusticana (as has also been done with the “Adoration” from Flagello’s Judgment of St. Francis [recorded on Citadel CTD-88107], which the Piper “Intermezzo” resembles in its ascent from somber gloom to a uniquely Italianate heart-throbbing spiritual ecstasy).
The recording at hand was taken from two stage performances, as noted in the headnote above. This must be borne in mind, as stage noise is audible almost constantly throughout the recording; also to be considered is the fact that almost all the performers are teenagers — albeit very talented teenagers. Hence certain shortcomings regarding polish and precision are inevitable. On the other hand, the words are clearly distinguishable, graduate student Brace Negron is superb as the Piper, and the chorus and orchestra are sufficiently accurate, cohesive, and well-coordinated to represent the work to good advantage. In conclusion, listeners who have yet to be convinced of Flagello’s importance as a major figure among the traditionalist composers of the twentieth century are well-advised to turn elsewhere for evidence. However, those who have delved into his more serious abstract works and, impressed by their authenticity and substance, are interested in exploring his approach to other media, are urged to sample this charming excursion. Let me mention another significant treatment of the same story: Peter Mennin’s ruthlessly faithful adaptation of the Piper legend into a grim and gripping dramatic cantata, composed at approximately the same time as Flagello’s; the work is arguably that composer’s masterpiece — a magnum opus that still awaits its first recording.