During the early years of World War II in England, Laura Jesson takes the train to a nearby town once a week for shopping and a movie. A chance encounter with Alec Harvey who, like Laura, is married with two children leads quickly to passion. They continue to meet surreptitiously until they must finally decide between love and honor.
Libretto by John Caird. Based upon the play Still Life
and the screenplay to the 1945 film Brief Encounter,
both by Noël Coward.
Premiere: May 1, 2009 at the Houston Grand Opera.
Featuring Elizabeth Futral, Nathan Gunn, and Kim Josephson. Conducted by Patrick Summers.
LAURA JESSON: Mezzo-Soprano
ALEC HARVEY: Baritone
FRED JESSON: Baritone
MYRTLE BAGOT: Contralto
ALBERT GODBY: Bass
DOLLY MESSITER: Soprano
DOCTOR GRAVES: Baritone
MARY NORTON: Soprano
MRS. ROLANDSON: Soprano
WAITER AT THE ROYAL HOTEL
WAITER N THE KARDOMAH CAFÉ
PORTERS AT THE STATION
...it boasts a carefully crafted libretto by John Caird that distils Noël Coward's screenplay for David Lean's film, but leaves enough space for the music to illuminate the words
Tim Ashley, The Guardian (UK), 12/05/2011
"Brief Encounter," the 1945 David Lean film, is perfect just as it is, so why make an opera out of it? Composer André Previn and librettist John Caird took up that challenge, and their opera of the same title, which had its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on May 1, is a skillful musical reimagining of this intimate romance about infidelity. Mr. Previn's lush, tonal score supplies a new dimension to this tale, giving a voice to the yearnings of Laura, the ordinary woman who is suddenly catapulted into extraordinary feelings.
Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, 06/05/2009
[A] faithful adaptation...with masterful strokes of lush, old-fashioned movie music.
D.L. Groover, Houston Press, 05/05/2009
Brief Encounter” is to a certain extent a brief encounter with Previn, who turned 80 last month... No single work could encapsulate all of Previn, but this opera relates to a surprising number of his sides, past and present (mostly past).
“Brief Encounter” is very much a film turned opera. Previn and British director John Caird, who wrote the libretto and is responsible for the handsome Houston production, makes all the references clear.
The opera’s job is to spell everything out in easily singable lines. Caird bold-faces the theme of the passing of time, makes sure we know the lovers consummate their affair and fills in the role of Laura’s affably distracted husband, Fred, so that a third character can feel sorry for himself as well. The opera adds a bit more bawdiness to the comic-foil characters of Myrtle (who operates the station tea shop) and Albert (a ticket taker).
The production, designed by Bunny Christie, is meant to remind us of the black-and-white movie. The original time and place are maintained. The opera is in 23 brief scenes (divided into two acts) and quick transformations from station to a river’s bridge and other locales appear as effortless and commonplace as quick cutting would on the screen.
On the surface, Previn accommodates Caird’s conventionalism. A big station clock dominates the set, and the opera opens with it chiming 3. But from then on Previn’s music does not so much define the opera as enigmatically float through it. He taps into his love of Vaughn Williams’ pastoral sound and he adds some Russianisms (the horns change nationalities as though at the flick of switch). He may underscore what the characters say or feel, but he doesn’t spell out time and place. His real genius here is to, like a film composer, set a mood and, like a jazz musician, let the music take him where it will.
…[Previn’s] great talent as a composer is to catch you unawares. In “Brief Encounter,” he hooks you with a melody, turns it on its side and moves on, measure after measure feeling like a brief but significant encounter. The opera will last.
Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times, 04/05/2009
Remember the so-called “Women’s Picture”?
Houston Grand Opera offers the operatic equivalent with its potent world premiere of André Previn and John Caird’s Brief Encounter. This is not to deny the work’s excellence in composition and stagecraft, nor to imply that only women will appreciate it. It’s merely to acknowledge that the sympathetic exploration of a woman’s romantic dilemma is the heart and soul of the opera…
As with the films to which the designation is applied — including the 1945 David Lean-Noel Coward Brief Encounter that inspired the opera — anyone who warms to the theme will find it a four-handkerchief affair….Sad-eyed romantics of every gender, age and class will get a melancholy thrill from its portrait of Laura Jesson, the “ordinary” English wife and mother, torn between the dashing doctor whom she recognizes as the great love of her life and the dear dull husband she respects and cannot bear to hurt.
The collaborators are quite faithful to the film yet make some important additions while subduing the more arch elements of Coward’s script. Their allegiance to the film puts them at a disadvantage right at the start, as we hear little from the leads in the first scene. Subsidiary comic figures, the train-station personnel, hold forth, as Laura and Alec sit and gaze sadly at each other for what we’ll soon learn is their last meeting. Then, Laura’s chattering friend Dolly intrudes to spoil the couple’s last moments together.
It’s only after Laura has gone home to husband Fred, and formulates in her mind the confession that she will never speak to him, that the heroine comes into full focus. From that point, as the love story unfolds in flashback, Previn’s score and Caird’s libretto take hold and grow increasingly affecting. The leads’ vocal lines gain distinction as attraction grows and the dangers of the relationship become clear to Laura — from their first kiss in the boathouse scene to Laura’s first lie to her husband and recognition of its significance, a strong Act 1 finale. Act 2 brings in the inner voices of Alec and Fred for the first time, fleshing out the triangle.
Previn’s orchestral writing is as crucial as the vocal lines to the musical texture that expresses the characters. Conductor Patrick Summers’ taste and expertise ensure that the score is beautifully and subtly realized.
Though Previn and Caird have delivered on their promise to give greater voice to her two men, Brief Encounter remains essentially Laura’s story, from her perspective. This is a great role for a soprano with strong dramatic instincts, and Futral rises to its challenge
Those without a romantic bone in their bodies may find all this a tempest in a dainty English teacup. Everyone else likely will agree that Previn, Caird, Futral, Gunn and the rest of the HGO team have achieved as effective an opera as could be made from a 1940s film romance. Feel free to fall madly in love with Brief Encounter — but be prepared to shed some wistful tears in the process.
Everett Evans, Houston Chronicle, 04/05/2009