Christmas is coming, and choirs are getting ready to sing such perennially popular carols as Torches! and There is no rose. Their composer, John Joubert, is meanwhile anticipating his 90th birthday in the spring, and the occasion will be marked by the release (on Somm Recordings) of his opera Jane Eyre. Recorded live at this world premiere concert performance by the English Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, it is proof again of Joubert’s distinctive voice, and a reminder that there is much more to his music than those deservedly well-loved carols.
Domiciled in Britain since 1946, the Cape Town-born Joubert has played a significant role in this country’s musical life, yet the extent and originality of his output are sometimes overlooked. Composing in almost every genre, he has a work-list (currently nudging towards Op. 200) embracing chamber music, two symphonies, four concertos and eight operas, the latter reflecting his strong literary instincts and including adaptations of George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes.
Completed nearly 20 years ago, his Charlotte Brontë opera has undergone revision and tightening to emerge in the two-act form heard here. Kenneth Birkin’s libretto distills the emotional essence of the novel – rather than its epic sweep and detail – taking a selective “scenes from” approach. It works hauntingly well, although amid a series of mostly intimate duets, the sudden ballooning of the cast in the wedding scene not only feels like something out of a different work but might prove an obstacle to opera houses looking to stage the piece.
While Joubert’s well-chosen operatic models are to some extent evident, his musical language is individual and he sustains the long scenes imaginatively. There is nothing obviously “English” about the atmosphere, although Joubert does sometimes suggest what a less chilly-hearted Britten might have sounded like. A natural opera composer, Joubert writes for a busy orchestra that drives the action along and illuminates it, without overwhelming the singers.
In the title role, April Fredrick sang with a lyrically gleaming soprano, soaring rapturously on Joubert’s singer-friendly lines. David Stout supplied virile tone as Rochester, and Mark Milhofer was incisive as the repressed Revd St John Rivers. Kenneth Woods conducted a well-prepared performance that ought on disc to win new admirers for the operatic Joubert. British opera companies have all too shabbily ignored his work, but American houses – often receptive to big literary adaptations – might take note.