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date: 30 March 2020

Water Bird Talk, Alocked

  • Virginia Saya

Extract

Monodrama in one act by Dominick Argento to his own libretto, freely adapted from Anton Pavlovich Chekhov dramatic monologue On the Harmfulness of Smoking Tobacco and J. J. Audubon’s book The Birds of America; Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 19 May 1977.

This 45-minute monodrama for medium male voice (baritone or low tenor) and 12 instruments is set in late 19th-century America at a provincial club meeting. A gentleman lecturer delivers a slide-illustrated talk on the peculiar habits of water fowl, during which parallels with his own unhappy life emerge and he spontaneously unburdens himself to his audience. At first henpecked by his wife, who censures his remarks from the wings, he shows a pathetic demeanour that gradually gives way to self-recognition and dignity in the course of the opera.

The music is organized as a theme and six variations with coda. The material to be varied consists of two 12-note rows, one vocal and one as an accompaniment, presented at the opening. In the fourth variation (‘Consolation’), a quotation of the hymn ‘Once to ev’ry man and nation’ creates a pivotal moment of character development: it becomes clear that the lecturer, who sings and accompanies himself splendidly at the piano, does indeed possess refined qualities that have been suppressed by the vulgar existence of which he complains. The success of the work was instrumental in leading Argento to write his own librettos for later operas....

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