Glass Ceilings – Eve Song; Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia; Camille Claudel – Into the Fire
Melissa Davis (soprano), Jerry Wong (piano)
MSR Classics MS1783 71:36 mins
This collection of song cycles by Jake Heggie is perplexing in its conceit. Titled Glass Ceilings, the album pledges to ‘give voice’ to ‘powerful women’, yet all but three of the included songs set texts by male writers, meaning the promised ‘female perspectives’ feel oddly marginalised.
Most powerful of the three works is Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999) which depicts the story of Ophelia through the words of Edna St Vincent Millay. Heggie’s shimmering score traces Ophelia’s downfall with a keen sense of drama, and while Davis’s voice can feel thin in places she delivers a committed and characterful performance.
The other two works are more problematic. Camille Claudel – Into the Fire (2012) explores the experiences of French sculptor Camille Claudel who grew famous as Rodin’s lover and muse, while her own work remained unjustly neglected. Davis handles the work’s quasi-operatic episodes with verve but the cycle’s text displays a troubling preoccupation with Claudel’s relationship with Rodin and explores little else of her life or work. Eve Song (2000) is another such conundrum; while Heggie’s colourful score is enjoyable enough, the text feels surprisingly crass in places (‘Do you want to be like God? / How do you mean? / Be old and have a penis? / I don’t think so. No.’).
Heggie’s music is often warmly appealing and the performances are not without merit, but it is hard to look beyond this contradiction between the disc’s stated aims and its actual contents. On the strength of this album, the glass ceiling seems firmly in place.