Dominick Argento’s Jonah and the Whale, completed in 1973, is an idiosyncratic, colorful, stylistically varied musical version of the well-known Biblical tale. The work is scored for narrator, tenor, bass and mixed chorus, accompanied by the unusual forces of three trombones, three percussionists, piano, harp and organ—a “trio of trios,” as the composer points out in his informative notes. Argento’s primary source for his libretto was the Middle English poem Patience, or Jonah and the Whale, in the composer’s own translation; he also drew texts from a seventeenth-century Protestant hymnal, traditional sea shanties and the King James and Latin Vulgate versions of the Bible. Argento’s compilation of texts from across the millennia is matched by his customary musical eclecticism—in this case, a well-calibrated blend of tonality and dissonance, fugue, chorale and whaling song, which are mingled in accordance with the composer’s well-honed sense of musical drama.
Argento uses his odd instrumentation imaginatively: the serene floating of the whale amid the waves is characterized first by a lyrical solo trombone, accompanied by harp, then by the full trio of trombones. It’s quite a lovely effect—unexpected, yet somehow just right. Jonah’s post-whale journey to Nineveh is illustrated by invigorating writing for the percussionists, and his subsequent impassioned warning to the people about God’s impending wrath approaches atonality. Argento then layers on the other players—the narrator, the King and the chorus—while Jonah’s admonition continues and the trombones occasionally pierce the percussion texture. It’s a memorable and strikingly original passage. In a contrasting interlude, soprano Amanda Forsythe delivers a lovely and lyrical “Christe eleison” in the stratosphere. Only an occasional section misfires, such as one slightly overwrought vocal cadenza in which Jonah reiterates the phrase “take my life” twenty-five times. In general, however, Argento spins a great musical yarn, and his translation of the Medieval English has some mellifluous alliteration. He is also sensible enough to go for a crowd-pleasing ending, with a cinematically swelling choral coda as the whale floats away, while Jonah, obviously chastened, gets the last word, quietly singing “Salvation is of the Lord.”
Tenor Daniel Norman successfully manages the difficult, angular vocal lines Argento crafted for Jonah, and he comes off as human and earnest in a potentially whiny role. (Even God reproaches Jonah for being “choleric” and “sulky.”) Daniel Cole’s sizable bass makes him compelling as the Voice of God, whose music is decisively tonal but harmonized with sophistication. Only a pronounced widening of the vibrato at the top of his range detracts from Cole’s authority. And despite my bias against extended speaking on music CDs, I found Thomas Oakes to be a spirited and companionable narrator. But there’s often very interesting music-making taking place in the underscoring: why does it have to be covered up by speaking, especially when the music (during the storm, for example) is far more illustrative than the words?
Andrew Clark shows great proficiency conducting the Providence Singers (despite their inconsistent intonation) and nine virtuoso musicians from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
- Joshua Rosenblum