With a story as treasured as that of Anne Frank and its message of courage, hope and spiritual triumph in dark times, it is particularly gratifying to find a new dimension to the tale. Even more so when it is artfully presented as it was by the Key Chorale in James Whitbourn’s oratorio setting inspired by the diaries left behind by young Annelies.
The libretto primarily consists of text drawn from Anne’s writings seasoned with a folk song in German, verses from the Old Testament, and a Kyrie. While we know the narrative, it is Anne’s voice, no, poetry, that is so touching. With a voice that easily conveyed the innocence amid increasingly worldly worries, soprano soloist Kathy Pyeatt was most impressive in her portrayal of the character through tone, expression and even her presence on stage when not singing.
Chorus and soloist seamlessly passed the text between them as the story was laid out in 14 movements. At times a capella, without accompaniment, and in spoken words, whispered or screamed, the results were effective some moments more than others. It strikes one as an exceptionally challenging score for singers and given that, the singers in the chorus, ably led by conductor Joseph Caulkins, were exceptional in this performance.
The composer, James Whitbourn, captured a range of impressions in his score with stylistic diversity. It seems than only on occasion was there a recognizable recurring melody or development of ideas. Rather the music unfolded in a stream of consciousness doubling back on itself briefly for emphasis, lingering in a pattern, often for great effect, before moving on, much like a diary.
Originally set for soprano soloist, chorus and full orchestra, one does not feel cheated by the chamber version performed here with accompaniment by pianist Nancy Yost Olson, violinist Daniel Jordan, clarinetist Bharat Chandra, and cellist Abraham Feder. Whitbourn’s efficient use of these instruments to add emotional color as well as harmonic support is notable.
If not previously aware of this fact, with this work, one is convinced that young Annelies was a talented poet. While not consistent in this achievement, there were several spots where the setting of her words to music were quite breathtaking. Warm countermelodies in the violin, melancholy and comfort from the cello, keening wails from the clarinet amplified, “We’re Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, a thousand obligations.”
The deliciously hopeful theme of Annelies’ blue sky, and the highlight of this work, is introduced to a dreamy klezmer-infused waltz and concludes in the final melancholy meditation, “As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know you’re pure within.”
ANNELIES. Key Chorale. Reviewed Nov. 6 at the Historic Asolo Theater.