IRMIN SCHMIDTGormenghast (Mute)

Lo! The rock opera returneth. In the past, the idea of combining the story line and extended structure of the opera or stage musical with the visceral slam of contemporary music has brought us bathroom-tissue commercials such as Jesus Christ Superstar or histrionic corn like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell; true, there was the super camp of The Rocky Horror Show, and a lot of grandeur and majesty via strictly pop-rock instrumentation in Tommy — all of which produced howls of derision from rock critics, who deemed it ”not rock.“ Now we have Gormenghast, the first rock opera that truly succeeds in blending the rock and the opera (and the electronic and ethnic musics) and deriving from them something that sounds like an original art form.

That Gormenghast should come from Irmin Schmidt, the former keyboardist-composer with the German avant-gardists Can, might seem surprising to some, as that band has long been revered for its mostly electric-primitive and anti-traditional stance. Yet Schmidt is a classically trained musician (with a pedigree so wide-ranging it‘s almost funny — he’s studied or worked with virtually all the major musical figures of the latter half of the 20th century, including Cage, Stockhausen, Riley, Gorecki, Ligeti and Berio, as well as conducting with Kertesz) who in the years between Can and now has written some 60-odd film, television and theater scores. His soundtrack work reveals a developing musical vernacular, with characteristic touches such as hummable melodies in minor keys and subtly dense harmonic voicings, incorporating electronic keyboards, guitars and prominent rhythm sections.

Gormenghast, inspired by Mervyn Peake‘s cult trilogy of fantasy novels, concerns the strange goings-on within a dilapidated old castle subject to obscure law and ritual, and overlorded and -ladied by a most peculiar bunch with names like Prunesquallor, Groan, Slagg, Swelter, Mollocks and Rottcodd. Published in the decade following World War II, Gormenghast is loaded with satirical commentary on the crumbling British Empire — you might think of it as the Tolkien Rings’ creepy cousin, or a humorously morbid Lewis Carroll riff with no pipe-smoking bunny rabbits wearing hats perched on giant mushrooms, but packing plenty of mildew. Schmidt‘s version (which premiered in Wuppertal in 1998, and was abridged for this CD release) utilizes lush orchestration, drum-’n‘-bass–informed electronic rhythms, contributions from former Can mates Jaki Liebezeit (drums) and Michael Karoli (guitar), pots-’n‘-pans punctuation, and singing by both opera and rock singers in a series of arias, duets and ensemble pieces built on a cleverly sinister libretto by novelist and former Can lyricist Duncan Fallowell.

The overture is a swirling swath of orchestral opium and electronic deep purples that plunges us into a deliciously dank, weird world, yet segues into a chillingly beautiful aria by mezzo-soprano Danielle Grima, atop a typically pungent Schmidt chord progression. Rather than take a cartoonishly ominous and murky approach, much of the ensuing music is luxuriant and sumptuous, like dark silk, combining minimalism, rock and the electronic avant-garde with classical romanticism and conventional operatic vocal turns. (To further smear his sources, Schmidt, with the help of sound engineer–programmer Jono Podmore, created a ”virtual orchestra“ by recording then reprocessing orchestral sounds.)

Schmidt ties it all adroitly together, aided immeasurably not only by his experience in divergent musical worlds but by his careful regard for the bleak comedy of Peake’s books. He also seems to have a feel for what one can reasonably ask operatic singers to do in unclassical settings: For once they don‘t sound utterly ridiculous.

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