Review: Andre Previn's 'Brief Encounter'
Opera can be many things, but quiet and subtle are not usually among them. AndréPrevin’s operatic adaptation of the David Lean film “Brief Encounter” premiered last year on stage with the Houston Grand Opera, and that performance has now been released on compact disc. What works on stage doesn’t always translate to the aural-exclusive world of home listening, so does “Brief Encounter” hold up?
The work follows the plot of the film (and Noel Coward’s play, “Still Life”) closely. Middle-aged Laura falls for handsome doctor Alec upon a chance encounter at the railway station where the two cross paths every Thursday. For weeks, they carry on a fledgling romance until fate steals them apart. Like the film, the opera is set as one long flashback, occasionally stepping into the sitting room where Laura spends time with her husband, Fred. I liked the way librettist John Caird expanded the role of Fred. In the film, he spends most of his time pecking away at a crossword puzzle, but in the opera, he’s a more well-rounded character with feelings. His aria where he wonders aloud why his wife has been so distant from him (“Without you there is nothing”) is one of the emotional highlights of Previn’s “Brief Encounter.”
In fact, most of the solo and duet scenes are well-written, especially the final moments of the work. But inevitably, comparisons between the film and the opera lead me to prefer the former. No, not because I missed the Rachmaninoff! But one of the things film has over recorded opera is that it’s more effective at conveying intimacy. Perhaps subtle lighting on stage could have helped out, but alas I was not in the audience. The Lean film was great at framing its characters in close-ups, and when Alec and Laura finally part, the “goodbyes” are quiet. But here, they are … well, less quiet. And as more characters appear on stage, Previn’s tendency is to have their vocal lines jump up and down the staff. I guess based on the story, I hoped for more flowing lines than I heard here.
There’s a constant motif of time woven throughout the narrative and music, whether it’s the train station schedule, or time running out on the doomed lovers. A peek at the cover of the CD reveals some of the opera’s staging, as Laura is framed by a giant clock. It’s an effective musical and dramatic tool. I think I’d rather enjoy taking the time to see “Brief Encounter” in person to get the full effect of the work. Perhaps then I’d appreciate more the opera on disc.