Selkie: A sea tale is a chamber opera collaboration between soprano Misha Penton and composer Elliot Cole, and was released on CD and digital download this April. From the liner notes: “Selkie…is a dreamscape of human fragility, longing and loss, written from a sailor’s wife to her selkie love and culminates in her willingness to release him back to the sea.” The CD features performances by Penton, cellist Patrick Moore, and pianist Kyle Evans. The work premiered in Houston, Tx in 2010.
Penton describes herself as Chief Cat Herder for Divergence Vocal Theater, the Houston-based opera company for which she is the founder and artistic director. Not only does Penton deliver a commanding vocal performance on this release, but she also undertook the role of producer, art director, and poet. With strong metaphors, clever wordplay, and a bevy of natural and nautical references, Misha’s poetry is colorful, active, whimsical, and leaves the reader (or in this case, the listener) with plenty of substance for repeated visits.
Penton describes selkies as being “transformative creatures that inhabit liminal spaces,” and just like the folkloric creatures, Cole’s music lives in between an assorted range of styles and moods. The music to Selkie serves as an intersection between 19th Century Romanticism and contemporary pop sensibilities; it is eclectic, yet remains stunningly cohesive throughout. There are clear and overt shades of Schubert and his contemporaries in “Night lifts the moon,” though it is never overbearing. While “Softly over sounding waves” evokes turn-of-the-century French impressionism, the repetitive pulsation and start-stop harmonic progression of “Dark night, long night” suggests a nod towards electronica. One can also hear bits of Björk, George Crumb, and parlor music. Cole’s setting compliments Penton’s fairy tale poetry exceptionally well.
The performances of Cole’s pieces on Selkie are superb. Penton displays a powerful, yet dynamic command of delivery. Her vocal performance is equal parts delicate, passionate, and aggressive, yet always direct. The intensity in Penton’s voice on “Ordinary sailor” is that of a lover who begrudgingly accepts that letting go is the only appropriate course of action at the tail end of a lengthy and turbulent relationship. This contrasts magnificently with the light and airy opening lines of “My door shadows open.” The breathtaking climax in “Night lifts the moon” arrives after a somewhat lengthy crescendo, and is made all the more wonderful as Penton’s voice leaps and ascends to an absolutely gorgeous melismatic phrase on the final syllable. Pianist Kyle Evans and cellist Patrick Moore expertly navigate the many abrupt shifts in mood and character presented over the course of not only the entire work but also within each track. For example, in the work’s overture, one really senses the submergence of a playful mythical creature deep into cold, dark waters as Moore’s descending cello line is overwhelmed by a low churning in the piano beneath a wavy surface.
The release of Selkie approaches the level of excitement and anticipation that one would expect of pop album, complete with a music video and bonus track version of “Softly over sounding waves,” the obvious “single” for this album. “Softly” is a strong track that delivers. The bonus take offers a re-orchestrated version that features Meredith Harris on viola, alongside Penton and Evans. As is the case for many albums and their singles, it is often in the accompanying tracks that the true strength lies. “Softly over sounding waves” definitely holds its own next to its counterparts. Still, many of the recording’s most powerful moments lie embedded within the surrounding tracks: the aforementioned climax of “Night lifts the moon,” the brilliant “stars” passage in “When you came ashore,” each reprise of the line “rustle whisper” throughout the work’s entirety. “Dark night, long night” is sure to be a deep cut favorite.
Despite the terrific performances given, the one thing that seems a bit off-putting from time to time on this recording is the quality of the mix. Busier moments at times sound crowded, particularly when the piano and cello are in their lowest registers. Other moments, though few, sound a bit hot, sometimes to the point of slight distortion or breakup in the sound. The general tone of the piano throughout the recording never seems to match the clarity that is present in both the cello and Penton’s voice.
Misha Penton & Divergence Vocal Theater, Elliot Cole: Selkie, a sea tale (April 2013) | Buy on Amazon US, Buy on Amazon UK
George Heathco is a composer, electric guitarist, collaborator, and teacher that lives in Houston, Tx with his wife and daughter. You can follow him on twitter: @GeorgeHeathco.