Paul Corfield Godfrey, Epic Scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part Four: The Fall of Gondolin (double CD 2018) [Pima Facie Records]

Given opera's proven track record of bringing mythology to life on a grand scale, it is surprising that half a century and more of Tolkien-inspired music has, with few exceptions, failed to exploit this medium. Apart from Adam Klein's aborted Leithian (1991) and Dean Burry's The Hobbit (2004), Tolkien's sub-creation has lacked an operatic expression worthy of its grandeur. Yet, as is so often the case when making such pronouncements, one must qualify one's words with the caveat, "except for Paul Corfield Godfrey, who has already done it."

The London-born Godfrey, who has lived most of his life in Wales, has explored Middle-earth through many forms of classical music, ranging from symphony to orchestral suites to settings for Tolkien's own poems and songs. The 2017 release of a selection of these by Prima Facie Records (Akallabęth and Other Tolkien Works) has stimulated renewed interest in Godfrey's most ambitious project, a four-part operatic interpretation of the great tales of the Silmarillion: Feanor, The Children of Hurin, Beren & Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin. More than ten hours in duration, this Wagnerian-sized omnibus already holds the record for being "the largest-scale work of classical music written in Wales in the twentieth century." Now, thanks to collaboration between Prima Facie and Volante Opera Productions, complete demo recordings (sampled instruments, real voices) of all four parts are in production. The first to be realized is the climactic Gondolin segment.

There is a poignancy to the timing of this double CD release, coinciding as it does with Christopher Tolkien's posthumous publication of his father's complete, constantly evolving Gondolin story (The Fall of Gondolin, HarperCollins, 2018) - though it is careful, for legal reasons, to distinguish the two works. Just as the Fall of Gondolin was the earliest tale of Tolkien's legendarium to achieve written form in 1917, it seems fitting that it should now be the first installment of Godfrey's opera to be heard. A centenary to celebrate.

Presented as three triptychs comprising nine scenes framed by a prologue and epilogue, the Fall of Gondolin delivers nearly two hours of pure Tolkienian epic - Tolkienian not simply by virtue of its subject matter but more importantly by its libretto, which is 100% Tolkien's own text. Or rather texts. In order to flesh out each essential movement of the story, Godfrey has made eclectic use of a variety of texts pertaining to the tale, much as the published Silmarillion was synthesized by Christopher Tolkien from the different manuscripts available to him.

Tolkien famously declared drama to be the enemy of fantasy. "Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play" (On Fairy-stories, p. 73). As an artform that necessarily focuses on persons rather than trees, one might imagine opera to be ill-suited to capturing the plenitude of Tolkien's world. On the other hand, inasmuch as the singer's role is to manifest and embody the intrinsic beauty and power of words, opera invites us to savor every cadence of Tolkien's linguistic aesthetic. The result is an aurally diverse yet dramatically unified tapestry at whose heart lies Tolkien's consummate wordcraft. In a world where Tolkien's authorial voice has been muted by one too many "adaptations," Godfrey's unforced fidelity to both letter and spirit is refreshing.

Like ring composition in classical literature, the triptychs use Gondolin's founding and fall as bookends for the central story of Tuor's coming, which ignites the unresolved aftermath of Aredhel's murder by Eol, thus creating the conflict with Maeglin which leads to the city's betrayal to Morgoth. The dialogue and the drama are all there, flawlessly executed by members of the Welsh National Opera. But the real gems of the libretto are the poetic verses Godfrey has integrated at appropriate moments into the prologue, during Tuor's journey with Voronwe, at Tuor and Idril's wedding, at the prelude to Morgoth's invasion, and finally at the epilogue. These are some of Tolkien's least known and most potent "word-pictures:" the Lay of Earendil and the Happy Mariners from Lost Tales, the Horns of Ylmir from The Shaping of Middle-earth, the Song of Ćlfwine and the Hymn to Iluvatar (in Quenya) from The Lost Road, and the Last Ark (also in Quenya) published in The Monsters and the Critics. It is these pauses in the story that enlarge its canvas, revealing glimpses of a wider world. It is this alternation between contemplation and action that makes Godfrey's achievement truly Tolkienian.

The Fall of Gondolin is a superb rendition of an unparalleled story. Its greatest virtue lies in its ability to enhance rather than overshadow that story. Let us hope that one day it will be performed live with a full orchestra!

REVIEWER: Chris Seeman (