Paul Corfield Godfrey, Epic Scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part One: Fëanor (double-CD 2022) [Pima Facie Records]
With the release of Fëanor, South Wales-based Volante Opera Productions has completed its demo recordings of Paul Corfield Godfrey’s four-part Silmarillion cycle. (A fifth installment, The War of Wrath, has recently been announced and is currently in production.) Beginning in 2018 with The Fall of Gondolin (Part Four), and continuing with Beren and Lúthien (Part Two) in 2019 and The Children of Húrin (Part Three) in 2020, members of the Welsh National Opera have helped bring to fruition the most ambitious musical undertaking ever inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology.
The Silmarillion was Tolkien’s life’s work. Evolving out of and alongside his invented languages in the years immediately preceding the Great War, Tolkien’s experience of the horrors of that conflict catalyzed his vision of an imagined past in which tragedy and heroism adorn an epic struggle between light and darkness. At the heart of this struggle are the Silmarils, the three great jewels forged by Fëanor, the renowned Elven craftsman. The Silmarils house the last light of the primordial Trees that lit the world before they were wantonly destroyed by Melkor, the legendarium’s diabolus. After murdering Fëanor’s father, Melkor seizes the Silmarils and absconds with them to Middle-earth, triggering a mass exodus of Elves bent on revenge and the jewels’ recovery.
That is the backstory in a nutshell. But as anyone who has read Tolkien knows, it barely scratches the surface; therein lies the principal challenge of condensing a vast mythological tapestry into a two-hour operatic prelude. Yet the composer could scarcely have evaded the challenge, as the ultimate coherence of its sequels depends upon it. Even on this score, however, Fëanor presents unique obstacles to dramatization. Unlike its counterparts, which, though equally intricate, are confined to the life of a single protagonist or pair of protagonists, Fëanor’s own backstory quite literally spans eons, stretching back to the creation of the cosmos itself and to the demiurgic rivalry it ignites between Melkor and his peers. “Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play,” Tolkien once wrote, and unfortunately for Godfrey, trees are the epicenter of this drama.
Godfrey mitigates this problem by relying on choral exposition to narrate the story’s un-performable moments: “The chorus thus assumes the role of the teller of the tales, filling both a functional and a dramatic role. Against this background the soloists assume the dramatic function.” But in contrast to Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin, the choral component of Fëanor is the sole voice heard in its first triptych (encompassing nearly half the total running time of the opera). While this in itself will not hinder the listener’s enjoyment of the recording, Godfrey acknowledges the challenges it would pose for a live audience:
"Although the text of Fëanor gives full stage directions as if for a fully staged performance, it is perhaps hard to see how some passages – especially the chorally based First Triptych – could ever be satisfactorily presented in the theatre. As such the work, like the other ‘Epic Scenes’, can perhaps be viewed as a sort of secular cantata which could be given in a semi-staged performance but in other places allowing the music to take centre stage, as in the formal choral descriptions of place and action, or through the use of filmed projections for the acts of cosmic creation. It may indeed best be encountered through the medium of sound recording, where listeners can mentally supply their own visual images to counterpoint the aural effect. Such a recording as the one here, which allows the detailed interweaving of choirs and soloists to be fully appreciated, would inevitably be very difficult to realise in the context of live performance."
In addition to grappling with these technical constraints, the composer has had to pare away many of the people, places, and things that inhabit his source material in order to avoid inundating the uninitiated with a forest of names – a measure Godfrey also had to apply to Parts Two and Three of the cycle. While these reductions may occasionally irk the Tolkien savant, such as Godfrey’s substitution of Elbereth for Yavanna as creatrix of the Trees, or Manwë (the anonymous “Elder King”) stealing Tulkas’ lines, they serve a necessary strategic purpose: of laser-focusing the audience’s attention on the opera’s titular protagonist.
The shift from exposition to action is sudden and arresting. Immediately on learning of Melkor’s clandestine efforts to sow discord among the Elves of Valinor, we are catapulted into Fëanor’s verbal clash with his half-brother, Fingolfin, whom he sees as a rival for the love of their father, Finwë. Tenor Simon Crosby Buttle delivers a masterful voicing of Fëanor, perfectly capturing his fiery persona with sharp, combative lines, which he soon thereafter trains on Melkor himself with devastating intensity. For his part, bass Laurence Cole, who voices Melkor throughout all four operas, takes full aural advantage of Part One to depict his character’s transformation from a feigned sympathizer to Morgoth, the Black Enemy of the World.
Fëanor’s speech in Tirion is the opera’s highlight. Arguably one of the finest specimens of Tolkienian wordcraft, this fateful oration and the oath it precipitates are the hinge of the entire Silmarillion. Here Buttle adds layers of rhetorical agility that not even Christopher Tolkien was able to convey in his famous Caedmon recording of this passage, alternating between soft, mellifluous vulnerability and indomitable, hubristic resolve. It is the magnetism of this speech that renders the Noldor’s dogged, doomed allegiance to Fëanor’s cause credible.
Equally riveting is the oath sworn by Fëanor and his sons, which transfers the role of the unseen chorus to characters within the story. On his choice of wording – Tolkien left us many iterations of it – Godfrey comments:
"the first version of all, written in about 1920 as part of the incomplete alliterative poem The Flight of the Noldoli, seemed to me to be one of the best of all, with a primitive rhythm and verve which many of the later redraftings seem to lose. It also, because of its peculiar metre and style, has a distinctive quality which clearly marks it out and differentiates it from the surrounding text as a formula, a form of words which is spoken as a quasi-religious rite, and not part of normal speech."
This is an excellent example of how Godfrey has used the pluriformity of the received corpus of the legendarium to creative advantage, a compositional tactic he has also put to good effect in Part Four.
The Fëanorian tour de force at Tirion is matched by veteran Silmarillion bass and Volante founder, Julian Boyce, who declaims Mandos’ Prophecy of the North with godlike immutability. This, in turn, sets up a dialogue in absentia between Fëanor, Manwë and Mandos (conjoined from a later scene in the published Silmarillion) on the coexistence of nobility and evil in the deeds destined to unfold in the rest of the cycle.
The only missing element that generates notable asymmetry between Fëanor and its sequels is its relative dearth of female soloists – the more conspicuous because of the abundance of female characters within the source material. Although key figures like Miriel are spoken about, they receive no speaking parts themselves. Only Elbereth-qua-Yavanna (soprano Emma Mary Llewellyn) and Ungoliant (voiced simultaneously by a chorus of female sopranos and altos) get a few lines. This imbalance is compensated for somewhat by the prominence of female voices within the ubiquitous chorus. One might also say that gender complementarity is achieved within the cycle as a whole, since all three sequel-operas feature female protagonists: Lúthien, Nienor, Idril.
From the initial development of The Children of Húrin as a stand-alone work in 1982 to the completed original cycle nearly half a century later, Epic Scenes from The Silmarillion has been a long time coming. It has been well worth the wait. All that is lacking is a live performance of the full cycle supported by a live orchestra. The composer and his associates have given the world a great gift; they deserve nothing less in return.
REVIEWER: Chris Seeman (www.tolkien-music.com)
COMPOSER’S WEBSITE: https://www.paulcorfieldgodfrey.co.uk/
VOLANTE OPERA PRODUCTIONS: https://www.volanteopera.wales/
PRIMA FACIE RECORDS: https://ascrecords.com/primafacie/