South African-born, UK-bred composer John Joubert is, we are told, the sort of chap to have three books on the go at a time. Not surprising then that the prolific nonagenarian turned to Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre as inspiration for his eighth opera in a catalogue that includes George Eliot’s Silas Marner and Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes. A labour of love, written to no commission, the work took him from 1987 until 1997, and only received its premiere performance last year. Bar a few patches, this excellent recording on the pioneering Somm label derives from that concert.
Along with composers like William Mathias and John McCabe, Joubert’s sound world owes a debt to Britten’s tonal lyricism, but in Jayne Eyre he allows his innate romanticism full play in a way that the more buttoned-up Britten would perhaps have shied away from. The result is a sensual, melodic score that despite employing only 35 players sounds rich and full with sensitively integrated orchestral piano and substantially deployed percussion leading the powerful climaxes. Joubert and his librettist Kenneth Birkin have crafted a lean framework that omits the extraneous, focusing almost exclusively on the characters of Jayne and Rochester. It’s well-crafted, but although less is often more, it does feel like a bit of motivational background is missing, while the love duets, ravishing as they are, still have a little fat in them.
April Fredrick makes a superb Jayne, her fine soprano reminding one of Heather Harper in its simultaneous command of musical line and language. Only at the very top does the role feel a stretch, and even then there’s a compensatory fearless excitement to the voice. David Stout is her equal as a virile-sounding Rochester and the supporting cast are all characterful. The excellent Kenneth Woods conducts a finely engineered recording, which only occasionally loses a voice beneath the bustling orchestral melée.