Paul Corfield Godfrey, Epic Scenes from The Silmarillion after the mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien, Part Five: The War of Wrath (double CD 2023) [Pima Facie Records]

Five years ago, South Wales-based Volante Opera Productions began an ambitious collaboration with London-born composer, Paul Corfield Godfrey, to produce complete demo recordings (live voices, simulated instrumentation) of the latter’s Silmarillion operas, which he had written during the 1980s and 1990s. Originally conceived as a four-part cycle covering the “great tales” of Tolkien’s primary legendarium – Fëanor, Beren and Lúthien, The Children of Húrin, and The Fall of Gondolin – the experience of realizing this sprawling saga induced tenor Simon Crosby Buttle, who had voiced the lead male protagonist in each of these recordings, to explore the possibility of a fifth and final installment to resolve the central thread of the cycle: the fate of the Silmarils. Although initially skeptical of the feasibility of this proposal due to the dearth and disunity of Tolkien’s source material on the subject, Godfrey was eventually convinced that a concluding segment was both desirable and doable. The result is The War of Wrath, a two-hour wrap-up to what is now the longest musical work inspired by Tolkien’s mythology in existence. (Howard Shore, move over.) It also holds the record for being the largest-scale work of classical music written in Wales in the twentieth – and, presumably, the twenty-first – century.

Wagnerian comparisons aside, Buttle was right to push for War. Although Godfrey never intended an exhaustive rendition of The Silmarillion – confining its scope, as the title accurately states, to “epic scenes from” – without some concluding account of what happens to Fëanor’s titular jewels, the cycle was a headless torso. The task, then, was to arrange the source material in such a way that narrative coherence was achieved without unbalancing the symmetry of the extant, four-part edifice. In short, War had to be more than mere “filler.” It had to not be an appendix, but a genuine conclusion – as well as a transition to the second half of Tolkien’s legendarium: the Rings of Power. The problem, as already noted, was that Tolkien had never really finished the Silmarillion. The form in which it existed at the time of his death had not been fully aligned with his developed conception of the mythology. There were variants, lacunae, contradictions. Moreover, the later versions of some of the stories were often sparse on detail and even sparser on dialogue, in the absence of which a functional libretto would be difficult if not impossible to achieve.

But this is not a new problem. In varying degrees, it spans the whole “Matter of the Elder Days” covered by the cycle. In composing, Godfrey has become adept at making a virtue out of necessity, creatively repurposing and reconfiguring texts from different corners of the canon into new constellations that simultaneously serve the needs of the opera while uncovering anew the potency of Tolkien’s wordcraft. Nonetheless, the peculiar limitations of this stretch of the story lead to inevitable differences from War’s predecessors. For one thing, the third-person narration of much of the source material results in a predominantly chorus-driven libretto at several points. For another, the need to straddle a comparatively narrow event horizon between the great tales that have already been told and an expansive future that can only be adumbrated calls for multiple “flashbacks” to earlier parts of the cycle. This has the salutary effect of reminding the audience (for whom this would be the fifth evening of the performance) of the interconnectedness of the overall plotline.

The curtain rises in the primordial past (before the coming of the Eldar to Valinor), where Elbereth prophesies the advent of Eärendil to her demiurgic peers. Fittingly, Godfrey selects for his libretto Tolkien’s earliest fragment of what would become his legendarium, the 1915 poem, “The Shores of Faëry,” coupled with his Quenya rendition of Eärendil’s real-world inspiration from the Old English poem, Crist. Incidentally, one of the strengths of the Volante recordings is their consistent use of the same performers to voice characters who appear in more than one of the operas. (Soprano Emma Mary Llewellyn also voiced Elbereth in Fëanor, and so her crystal-clear delivery frames the beginning and end of the cycle.) Meanwhile, on the shores of Middle-earth, Círdan (bass Julian Boyce) prepares to set sail for the Undying Lands but is stayed by the Vala Ulmo (voiced in Part Four by bass Martin Lloyd), who repeats the prophecy of the one who is to come. The inclusion of this otherwise minor scene serves to introduce the site where the main protagonist (Eärendil) will later appear, but also to establish Círdan, who, though peripheral in the first half of the opera, becomes central to its epilogue.

The drama begins as we fast-forward to Menegroth during the First Age of the Sun, where Melian (mezzo Helen Jarmany) wheedles out of Galadriel (soprano Angharad Morgan) part of the dark truth about the Noldor’s departure from Valinor. This is an exquisitely executed dialogue. Jarmany, who reprises her role from Part Two, projects tangible gravitas as she cross-examines her reluctant companion. Although Galadriel has not previously appeared in the cycle, Morgan has, taking on the signature heroine roles of Lúthien (Part Two) and Nienor (Part Three). Even were the audience ignorant of Galadriel’s future significance, their familiarity with Morgan from the previous operas would cause eyes and ears to perk up.

This scene serves several purposes. It reminds the audience of the Silmarils as the cause of the conflict with Morgoth (Part One). The overconfidence of Melian’s husband, Thingol (also reprised by Martin Lloyd), regarding the peril posed by the Fëanorians, of which Melian vainly strives to warn him, establishes the backstory for Thingol’s death at their hands. Finally, because it is set before Beren’s coming to Doriath, it allows Melian a premonition of Part Two, which set in motion the chain of events that would eventually bring the Silmaril into Thingol’s possession.

In his notes, Godfrey comments at length on the difficulty he and Buttle encountered in adapting the next scene (which culminates in the Ruin of Doriath) due to the instability of its details in the received tradition and the overabundance of supporting characters that would need to be introduced in order to stage it. Through a judicious compression of events and the substitution of the sons of Fëanor for the scene’s original villains (Dwarves), an efficient portrayal of the tragedy is attained, giving center stage to Melian’s lament and to the introduction of Elwing (mezzo-soprano Sophie Yelland, a newcomer to the Silmarillion project), who spirits the Silmaril away to the Havens of Sirion so that the villainous Fëanorians (tenors Michael Clifton-Thompson as Maglor and Huw Llewellyn as Curufin) fail to obtain it.

The intervening events of Elwing’s marriage to Eärendil and her bearing of Elrond and Elros occur off-stage. The next scene brings us to Eärendil’s initial voyage, seeking his parents, Tuor and Idril (hero and heroine of Part Four), who have already journeyed West, and hoping to intercede with the Valar to save the two kindreds – Men and Elves – from destruction. Though mentioned and (silently) present in Part Four, it is here that Eärendil (voiced by Buttle) first speaks, bidding his wife and sons not to accompany him on his perilous errand, but to wait for a sign of hope. In spite of the titular war being the dramatic climax of the opera, it is the present scene and the two that follow it that are its heart.

Already in 2004, Godfrey had set Tolkien’s Lay of Eärendil to music. This uniquely metered poem, based on idiosyncratic, trisyllabic assonance, underwent many metamorphoses during the course of the legendarium’s development (HoMe VII.81-109). Godfrey puts it to good use as choral narrative in these scenes. But in order to make it truly operatic and not just expository, he intersperses its verses with actual dialogue drawn from the published Silmarillion and its cognates. The result is a lively contrapuntal alternation between indirect and direct discourse, between the poem’s commentary and the events it comments on. To this Godfrey adds a further layers of intertextuality by transferring Legolas’ Song of the Sea from The Lord of the Rings (III.956) to Eärendil’s lips in Scene Four and Tolkien’s early Quenya poem, “Earendel,” published in his 1930 essay, “A Secret Vice” (Monsters and the Critics, pp. 216-217), to Scene Five to lend added vividness to Eärendil and Elwing’s final voyage to Valinor. Thus, at this all-important eucatastrophic moment within the cycle, the fullness of Tolkien’s own modes of story-telling – verse and narrative, Elvish and English – are brought into fruitful conversation.

The outcome of Eärendil’s embassy is well-known to anyone familiar with Tolkien’s mythology. With Elwing’s Silmaril affixed to his brow, Eärendil persuades the Valar to have mercy upon the Noldorin exiles and upon all Ilúvatar’s children menaced by Morgoth. Eönwë (baritone Philip Lloyd-Evans) heralds the mariner’s arrival and escorts him to the Ring of Doom, where Mandos (also voiced by Julian Boyce in Part One) questions whether a mortal who sets foot on the Undying Lands should be allowed to live. Empowered by Ilúvatar, the Elder King, Manwë (also voiced by bass George Newton-Fitzgerald in Part One), gives both Eärendil and Elwing the choice of which kindred – Elves or Men – they are to be judged with. Both choosing the former, Elwing remains in Aman while Eärendil’s vessel, Vingelot, is hallowed so that it can perpetually sail the heavens with the Silmaril as its lantern so that all the world – including the Fëanorians – may behold it as a sign of hope.

The opera now moves to its crescendo. The Valar lead an army against Morgoth, defeating and expelling him from the world. The war itself is entirely narrated by chorus, its chaos musically conveyed by what Godfrey aptly describes as “a welter of themes placed in violent juxtaposition with each other.” The all-male chorus intones Morgoth’s punishment with judicial inexorability. Yet this dénouement is not the end of the story because “the lies that Melkor, the mighty and accursed, sowed in the hearts of Elves and Men are a seed that does not die, and cannot be destroyed; and ever and anon it sprouts anew, and will bear dark fruit even until the latest days.”

This gloomy prognosis is borne out by the opera’s final half-hour. Its truth is first instantiated in the fraught deliberations of the surviving Fëanorian brothers, Maglor (Michael Clifton-Thompson from Scenes Three, Five and Six) and Maedhros (bass Stephen Wells, who also voiced this character in Part One), who debate whether their oath requires them to defy the Valar by wresting the two remaining Silmarils recovered from Morgoth’s crown. This is one of the eeriest dialogues in the whole cycle, made more so by Godfrey’s stage directions concerning the omniscient, eavesdropping Valar:

Maglor takes Maedhros aside to confer. Behind them a vision of the Elder King, Mandos, Ulmo and Elbereth appears, which Eönwë sees clearly. They watch the following conversation with great interest.

MAGLOR The oath says not that we may not abide our time; and it may be that in Valinor all shall be forgiven and forgot, and we shall come into our own in peace.

Elbereth smiles at this, and the Elder King nods in assent.

MAEDHROS If we return with them but the favour of the Valar is withheld, then our oath would still remain, but its fulfilment be beyond hope. Who can tell to what dreadful doom we shall come, if we disobey the Powers in their own land?

Mandos bristles clearly at this.

MAGLOR If Manwë and the Valar themselves deny the fulfilment of an oath to which we named them in witness, is it not made void?

MAEDHROS But how shall our voices reach to Ilúvatar beyond the Circles of the World? And by Ilúvatar we swore in our madness, and called the Everlasting Darkness upon us if we kept not our word. Who shall release us?

Mandos is becoming more displeased with what he is hearing. The Elder King is standing emotionless and watching.

MAGLOR If none can release us, then indeed the Everlasting Darkness shall be our lot, whether we keep our oath or break it; but less evil we shall do in the breaking.

Maedhros draws his sword and prepares to fight; Maglor reluctantly does the same. The Elder King raises his hand to stop Eönwë from doing the same, and then gestures for them to leave the Silmarils.

This is one of those rare opportunities where one medium (visually staged drama) enhances another (spoken word) to add theological depth to Tolkien’s vision of the Valar as angelic world-rulers who are nonetheless loath to coerce Ilúvatar’s children into acting contrary to their own free will. Tolkien reflected extensively on this tension in his late philosophical ruminations. This is a brilliant use of operatic form to demonstrate it in action.

Unable to endure the burning sanctity of the holy jewels, the brothers realize the folly of their choice, casting them into the bowels of the earth and the depths of the sea respectively. Formally, this fulfills the mission of War: to inform the audience of the ultimate destiny of each Silmaril: earth, sea, and sky. But since we have been informed that “the lies that Melkor, the mighty and accursed, sowed in the hearts of Elves and Men are a seed that does not die,” we – like them – are compelled to witness its rebirth as the true conclusion of the cycle.

Rather like the post-credits scene of an MCU film, the closing image of the Silmarils abruptly switches to an entirely different character and setting: a fair-seeming Sauron (bass Jasey Hall, who also voiced him in Part Two), lamenting “the weakness of the great” and inviting the remaining Elves to join his MMGA movement (“Make Middle-earth Great Again”). In no time flat, his fair visage falls as he intones the Ring-chant in the shadow of a ghostly Morgoth mirroring him in Black Speech (volcanically voiced by Laurence Cole from Parts One, Two, Three and Four). We are not in the First Age any more.

War’s epilogue (which, at nearly fifteen minutes, is longer than all but one of its actual scenes) comprises excerpts from Tolkien’s poem, “The Trees of Kortirion” (HoMe I.39-43), recited by the three Even Ring-bearers (Círdan, Galadriel, and an adult Elrond voiced by Buttle) and a chorus of unseen voices. The poem, which acknowledges the fading of the Elves and their world, is framed at either end by “Aiya Eärendil elenion Ancalima!” (“Hail, Eärendil, brightest of stars!”), the line with which War’s prologue opened.

The War of Wrath, like the opera cycle as a whole, is a triumph of adaptation. It shares the most important moments of Quenta Silmarillion, broadcasting their beauty and power in a musical (and, when performed live, visual) medium that illuminates the genius of Tolkien’s art rather than presuming to “improve” upon it. For those already immersed in Tolkien’s sub-creation, Godfrey’s accomplishment will enhance appreciation for the intricacies of character, setting, and story that make up the canon as we have it. For those less familiar with the world but who enjoy opera for opera’s sake, Epic Scenes will invite favorable comparison with classical operatic adaptations of other mythological cycles of our own world.

Each time I have reviewed one of these Volante Opera recordings, I have made a plea for it to be performed live. In the history of Tolkien-inspired music, never before have the stars aligned as they have for this project: a libretto faithful to its source, a professional opera company with five years’ experience with the material, and a composer with a magnificent score to back it up. Add to this the heightened popularity of the subject matter due to Amazon’s recent “Rings of Power” series. If not now, then when? If not Godfrey and Volante, then who?