New recordings: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatReview
“Popular” is a strong word for the minimalist chamber opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986), composed by Michael Nyman (b. 1944). Rarely produced, and more rarely recorded, the opera is a subtle and reflective examination of fear of the unknown, the weakening of a previously fortified relationship, and really, the realization that all that we know to be true teeters arbitrarily between “Sure, everything is fine,” and perceived calamity.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat is not a technically a tragedy, though; deaths do not a tragedy make. The opera is based on Oliver Sacks’s case study (1985), with a libretto by Sacks, Christopher Rawlence, and Michael Morris, and tells of a neurologist’s study of his patient, Dr. P.
A really cool thing about opera is that it allows us to face some scary things, or even just the drama in life’s little moments, and process them. Nashville Opera’s brand new recording of Michael Nyman’s opera lets us experience these scary things and little moments in an intimate, poignant way. Stage director John Hoomes and music director Dean Williamson coax out of their musicians impressive dramatic and musical performances of a work that is a technical challenge.
The Neurologist is sung by tenor Ryan MacPherson. Mr. MacPherson’s talent spans beyond musicality into an affecting interpretation of a third-party observer. His Neurologist begins with resolve, and as the opera progresses and questions arise, the Neurologist’s confidence wanes - that is not to say that Mr. MacPherson’s vocal strength falters, but rather that he gives his character, and the listener, the dramatic space to be unsure. MacPherson’s vocal acuity and rich, colorful tenor makes the difficult score sound easy.
Matthew Treviño sings Dr. P in a beautiful, articulate portrayal of The Man himself. Mr. Treviño, who is well-received in comedic roles, does well to give Dr. P sensitive authenticity without nearing ridiculousness – a challenge, probably, but without strain. Mr. Treviño’s honeyed, melting bass voice is best showcased in one of the opera’s climactic moments: the scene in which Dr. P sings Robert Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht”. Throughout the recording, Mr. Treviño’s diction is crisp and distinct, allowing us to really consume the libretto.
The least credible role, Mrs. P, sung in a flurry of high notes and excellent musicianship and drama by soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, is also the most relatable. Ms. Sjöwall gives heartbreaking life to Mrs. P and her reaction to her husband’s descent into what must look like madness. When Nashville Opera premiered the work in November, 2013, critics favored Ms. Sjöwall’s dramatic screech “Philistine!” in The Paintings in Scene 5. And while it is a big, sparkly high B (I think it’s a B), what I find more pleasing is Ms. Sjöwall’s treatment of Mrs. P’s vulnerable moments, culminating in her tender, theramin-esque vocality of Mrs. P’s labored acceptance in the last track of the recording.
The mixing of the recording seems to favor the small orchestra sometimes, but it is an otherwise triumphant release for Nashville Opera and its inaugural commercial recording. We are lucky that the company’s interpretations translate so well and with such clarity to strict audio.
8⁄10 would recommend.
This recording, released September 9, 2016 and available from Naxos, was was recorded at the famous Ocean Way Studio in Nashville, TN. Purchase it right here.