Paul Corfield Godfrey, Epic Scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part Three: The Children of Hurin (double CD 2020) [Pima Facie Records]

Tolkien declared eucatastrophe (the happy ending) to be the hallmark of authentic mythology:

It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure… it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. ("On Fairy-stories," par. 99)

Considered as a whole, Tolkien's "Great Tales" of the First Age exemplify this dictum: out of sorrow comes unlooked-for hope and, in the end, victory for all that is good, true, and beautiful. But Tolkien understood that the "truth" of the happy ending hinges on its prior recognition of the harsh reality of Evil; to ignore, minimize, or explain away unmerited suffering and humanity's powerlessness to redress it is to empty eucatastrophe of meaning.

The Children of Hurin is Tolkien's attempt to keep faith with the darkness, giving full weight to the combined force of diabolical malice and self-defeating hubris in human experience. As Morgoth announces to Hurin in the story's opening dialogue,

upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill-counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death. (The Children of Hurin, p. 64)

Capturing this unrelentingly lachrymose plotline in a musical medium would not seem to present insurmountable difficulties. After all, opera is no stranger to tragedy, and The Children of Hurin contains many scenes that readily lend themselves to visual enactment. Yet, more so than its counterparts, this third installment of Paul Corfield Godfrey's Silmarillion cycle exposes the limits of operatic adaptation. Godfrey's creative grappling with those limitations has generated an experience that opens up striking new vistas into the heart of one of Tolkien's most moving tales.

The basic enemy is time: how to distill the essence of an extremely intricate story driven by complex motives and events into an approximately two-hour performance without sacrificing either mood or narrative coherence? To a degree, this challenge is shared by all four parts of the cycle. But in the case of Feanor, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin, one is dealing with plots that are more amenable to linear condensation: a vendetta, a union of two lovers, the destruction of a city. By contrast, the very nature of Turin's quest – to elude an intangible curse that pursues him through each (very different) phase of his life – resists abridgement.

Godfrey conducts the necessary vivisection, omitting all episodes from Turin's life that are not absolutely essential for getting him to Brethil, and reducing the supporting cast to a skeleton crew. (Mablung, for instance, absorbs all of Thingol's essential lines.) What remains is intelligible on its own terms, though there are a few gaps that may mystify someone who is not already familiar with the story. (How did Saeros die? When was Turin captured by Orcs?)

Lost content is made up for by signature exchanges between the principals and choral forebodings of doom (adapted mainly from the Narn i Chin Hurin and The Grey Annals). Amidst all the compression, Turin's development as a character is sometimes obscured, though by Scene 7 its contours emerge more fully...just in time for him to die! One pleasant surprise is the retention of lines by the key female characters that reveal the inner conflicts that make them such well-rounded characters (Morwen: Scene 1; Finduilas: Scene 4; Nienor; Scene 6).

Members of the Welsh National Opera have rendered yeoman service with their stellar vocal talents in bringing the libretto to life. Lawrence Cole (bass) delivers yet another chilling portrayal of Morgoth in the opening scene, setting the tone for what follows. Simon Crosby Buttle (tenor) and Angharad Morgan (soprano) shoulder the burdens of the titular children – Turin and Nienor. Given their recognizability from Godfrey's previous Silmarillion recordings (Morgan voiced Luthien in Beren and Luthien, Buttle voiced Tuor in The Fall of Gondolin), the present recording owes much of its atmosphere to these singers' versatility, switching from the portrayal of nigh invulnerable heroes to all-too-vulnerable victims.

Of the many fine performances that inhabit this recording, the one that impacted me the most was Helen Greenaway's portrayal of Morwen, Hurin's stoic wife who sends their son into exile (Scene 1), accompanies their daughter in search of him (Scene 6) and reunites with her husband just before her death (Epilogue). Her depiction is quite essential to the opera's closing words ("She was not conquered…") as they are the only victory Tolkien allows to mitigate the family's otherwise wholesale descent into darkness. Greenaway's interpretation of Morwen's quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) desperation, coupled with her emotional emptiness in the Epilogue, poignantly conveys the true devastation of Morgoth's malice.

Another particularly effective gem is the synchronous duet sung by Buttle and Morgan (representing the inner thoughts of each character), which concentrates into a few brief lines the awakening and growth of Turin and Nienor's love for each other over a period of time:

NIENOR: (There lies a shadow on this man, and I am afraid. But he has escaped from it, even as I. And is he not worthy of love?)
TURIN: (From the green mound she came, the wraith of a slain maiden on the grave of Finduilas. Is that a sign, and how shall I read it?)...Time passes. We have waited, and now I will wait no longer. I will go back now to war in the wild, or I will wed you, and go never to war again, save to defend you if some evil assails our home.
UNSEEN VOICES: She takes him with joy; and spring turns toward summer.

Although this does not strictly pertain to the recording I am reviewing, I draw attention to the full libretto (available on Godfrey’s website) because the staging instructions it includes illustrate another way in which the composer has capitalized on the visual-performative potential of the operatic medium to enhance the viewer's experience. The titular Hurin plays no active role in the story while his children are alive; he is a spectator of their tragedy, confined to an enchanted bleacher seat in Angband. We the readers know this, but the narrator never pauses the story to show us Hurin's reactions to events as they unfold "in real time." Having the drama played out by real actors on a stage enables Godfrey to transcend this limitation of the written word. At each "dyscatastrophic" turn of the story, the actor playing Hurin becomes visible to the audience, elevated on a pillar above the stage:
  • Scene 1: At once total darkness engulfs the door where Morwen still stands. Turin remains unmoving at the front of the stage; his father watches motionlessly from his raised pillar far above.
  • Scene 3: Turin stands, with the sword Anglachel in his hands, looking down at the body of Beleg while the storm and lightning crash and flash upon the scene… The face of Turin suddenly lights up with recognition and horror. The storm reaches its climax; Gwindor turns away and crouches down with his hands over his eyes. Hurin on his pillar reaches out his hands towards his stricken son, and again remains motionless… Gwindor slowly picks up the sword Anglachel, placing it in Turin’s hand; and leads him slowly out. Hurin, on his pillar, allows his arms to drop once more loosely to his side. The lights fade and the Curtain falls.
  • Scene 5: [GLAURUNG] If thou wilt be slain, I will slay thee gladly. But small help will that be to Nienor or Morwen. No heed didst thou give to the cries of the elf-woman. Wilt thou deny also the bond of thy blood? Glad shall thy father be to learn that he hath such a son; as learn he shall. Until this moment Hurin has been again motionless upon his pillar; now, as before, he raises his hand as if in supplication towards his son. Turin, as if bereft of his own will, turns abruptly away and rushes across the bridge… For a moment, Nienor remains as though transfixed. Then she turns, her face and mind a blank expression of despair, and stumbles running back across the bridge and towards the river. Hurin on his pillar sinks down in despair as the Curtain falls.
  • Scene 7: When the curtain rises the scene is largely covered with green-leaved trees: to the right of the stage these completely shroud one of the standing stones but to the left the other stone is still to be seen, standing alone and overlooking a deep river gorge which lies towards the back of the stage. Hurin still remains on his pillar; but now he lies prostrate, clutching at the sides of the stone, and his face is shrouded and invisible. It is dawn, and the day is slowly breaking. Turin is seen lying exhausted beneath the standing stone by the edge of the gorge. Dorlas appears through the woods leading a number of men; they stop in amazement at the sight of Turin, then Dorlas comes across and gently rouses him.
  • Scene 9: [TURIN] I am blind, blind, groping since birth in the dark mist of Morgoth! Go back to Doriath, and may winter shrivel it! This only was wanting. Now comes the night! Immediate darkness covers the scene. A cold light illuminates the very front of the stage; in it Turin stands alone, holding up his sword. Hurin on his pillar has risen and stands looking tensely towards his son.

    In a very real sense, then, Hurin's mute presence supplies a unifying thread to the narrative. His embodied reactions serve as a kind of omniscient commentary on events. It is with him that the audience is encouraged to identify, as he and they share a perspective his children lack. A brilliantly constructed irony.

    In his notes, Godfrey explains that The Children of Hurin was historically the first of the four Silmarillion operas he composed, and that it was initially conceived as a free-standing work (before he thought of anthologizing it as part of a cycle). Inadvertently, though, elements of The Children of Hurin as originally written link it with its neighbors. In terms of the present recording, there is Laurence Cole's performance of Morgoth. (He also voices Morgoth in Beren and Luthien, The Fall of Gondolin and, I presume, Feanor.) As Morgoth is the only character in this opera who also appears in the others, his colloquy with Hurin (Scene 1) establishes both continuity and contrast with the more "eucatastrophic" Beren and Luthien that precedes it.

    A more substantial link with Beren and Luthien is Godfrey's use of poetic lines from The Lay of Leithian for tone-setting choral interludes. The first, introducing Scene 8 (Nienor's naked flight through the woods), excerpts lines from Sauron's song-duel with Felagund ("Around the gloom gathers…"), emphasizing despair. Conversely, to accent the hope ignited by the Blacksword in Brethil, the interlude to Scene 9 reprises lines from Beren's song of parting ("Though all to ruin fell the world… yet were its making good, for this"). This reminds the listener that the tragedy of Turin and Nienor, dark as it is, has become tributary to the larger cycle.

    We eagerly await the recording of the remaining opera (Feanor) so that all four may be enjoyed together in sequence.

    REVIEWER: Chris Seeman (