Gordon Getty: Plump Jack

Getty's Plump Jack, At Last

Jason Victor Serinus on September 21, 2012
Gordon Getty <em>Plump Jack</em>
Gordon Getty Plump Jack

It has been a long time coming, but Gordon Getty’s most widely discussed composition, the opera Plump Jack, has finally made it to disc — the 75-minute concert version, that is, which omits two of the opera’s scenes. And while it’s not clear that we as yet have the opera in final form — since the first performance of the “Boar’s Head Inn” scene (Act 1, Scene 5) at San Francisco Symphony in 1985, 11 additional scenes and an 11 minute and 18 second long overture have been added and orchestrated, and the entire opera has been recently revised — what we do have is an engaging musical enterprise that invites critical commentary.

Listen To The Music

Act II Scene 6: Shallow's Orchard (Shallow, Falstaff)

Act II Scene 11: Muse Of Fire (Pistol, Boy, Hostess, Shallow, Bardolph, Davy, Henry V (Hal), Chorus)
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With a libretto that Getty himself adapted, in large part, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V, Plump Jack follows the rotund Falstaff, the elder King Henry IV, Henry’s son Hal (eventually Henry V), and their not-so-merrie comrades, cohorts, and acquaintances through a series of ambushes, schemes, and deaths. Although I am far from a Shakespeare scholar, both SFCV editor and musicologist Michael Zwiebach and UC Berkeley Shakespeare scholar Hugh Macrae Richmond’s video collection of Shakespeare stagings confirm that the Falstaff of these plays, who predates the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a dissolute knight whose wit, in Zwiebach’s words, “is razor sharp and not clownish.” The earlier Falstaff’s actions, he writes, “show a man with a significant dark side,” one capable of cheating men, both honorable and far less so. In short, Getty’s title, Plump Jack, may suggest a barrel of belly laughs, but neither libretto nor music invites such.

Getty pulls no punches when discussing his compositional aesthetic. In the remarkably candid liner notes to the superbly recorded Pentatone hybrid SACD release, he acknowledges that his music is derivative:

I find it much easier to rank my favorite composers, past and present, than to figure out which ones have influenced my music. … I am something like an unwed mother who cannot name the father. What I hear more of [in Plump Jack] is movie music.… Movies, after all, are spoken operas where the score tells us what to expect and how things feel.

What we do have is an engaging musical enterprise that invites critical commentary.

This quasi-cinematic opera’s extended overture, wonderfully performed by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under the baton of Ulf Schirmer, immediately signals what’s in store. The music may be tonal in the traditional sense, yet its dark drama, arresting percussive exclamations, and intriguing dynamic contrasts immediately draw us — certainly me — in. Most of the ensuing dialogue far more resembles speech than melody, with Getty’s notably rich and compelling orchestration conveying the underlying emotions.

Many of the oft double-cast singers, including the well-known soprano Melody Moore (singing Boy/Clarence), mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer (Hostess Nell Quickly), bass-baritone Christopher Robertson (Henry IV/Pistol), tenor Nikolai Schukoff (Hal/Henry V), and baritone Nathaniel Webster (Bardolph/Chief Justice), sound reasonably like you’d expect their characters to sound. The big puzzlement is baritone Lester Lynch as Falstaff. He has a fine voice, with lots of strength, but the crucial flaws, irony, and nervy humor that are essential to drawing a compelling characterization of Falstaff are absent. Getty’s orchestration says one thing, yet Lynch’s vocal quality and inflections do nothing to send it across the imagined footlights.

“What I hear more of in Plump Jack is movie music … Movies, after all, are spoken operas where the score tells us what to expect and how things feel.” – Gordon Getty

Nonetheless, Getty’s writing retains its eloquence. Even as I acknowledge that I want the opera to succeed — Getty is, after all, one of the Bay Area’s and the world’s great music and education philanthropists, whose generosity enables a host of organizations (including SFCV) to perform with excellence — I can honestly affirm that much of it does. The immensely colorful overture may be too long to present online, but the two scenes excerpted herein (albeit in sonically compromised 320 kbps MP3 form) should certainly give you a good sense of how much there is in Plump Jack to enjoy and savor.