ROBERT HOLST reviews "The Peculiar Case of Dr. H.H. Holmes"
“The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes,” Libretto and Music by Libby Larsen
For Baritone and Prepared Piano
Performed by Aaron Engebreth, baritone, and Alison d’Amato, pianist
Florestan Recital Project
H. H. Holmes (aka Herman Mudgett) earned the distinction of being one of the first, if not the most prolific, of America’s serial killers. After having credited several murder victims to his account, Holmes opened a hotel in Chicago during the 1893 Chicago World Exposition that he had designed himself and had built to facilitate murder. The structure contained secret closets and sound-proof chambers, as well as a furnace, occasionally used by Holmes in the pursuit of his craft. Although Holmes confessed to 27 murders (the majority committed in his hotel), he is believed to have committed up to 250 murders and numerous instances of insurance fraud. The case was notorious in its day and is well documented in the book, The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. It received extensive publicity through numerous articles in William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers.
Libby Larsen’s songs frequently explore provocative, fascinating subject matter. “Try Me, Good King,” “Songs from Letters” and “Hell’s Belles” are three cycles that come to mind. In “The Peculiar Case of Dr. H. H. Holmes” she creates a five song cycle from Holmes’ own confessions combined with detective Robert Corbitt’s notes and articles about his investigations into murder and insurance fraud suspicions against Holmes, investigations that ultimately led to Holmes’ arrest and prosecution. The cycle was commissioned in 2009 by Dickinson College for The Florestan Recital Project, Musical Artists in Residence at Dickinson College at the time. The first performance was given by Aaron Engebreth and Alison d’Amato of the Florestan Recital Project in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, March 5, 2010. The current performance is A World Premier Recording and animated video that features the artwork of Rick Geary (pictured below). It can be accessed only through the Web Site of the Florestan Recital Project at this time, and is certainly worth the visit.
The cycle begins by presenting Holmes and his story (“I State My Case”). Songs two three and four (“As A Young Man,” “I Build My Business” and “Thirteen Ladies And Three Who Got Away”) center on significant moments in the course of Holmes’ career that offer some perspectives, if not explanations, into his motivation and character. The fifth song (“Evidence”) finally describes what led to his downfall. The text, “a little spinning top and a tin man, a topcoat, a trunk with a strip of blue calico mending a seam, a woman’s shoe…” begins and ends the first song and the entire cycle, as well, creating a unified structure within which Holmes’ horrifying and macabre acts are articulated. Musically Larsen ties the songs together with a Phrygian scale – the devil’s mode of medieval church modes – and a b-flat, c, d-flat motive, stated in the beginning that returns at several important points in the work. Those familiar with Larsen’s style will feel at home here. For those new to her work you will find an eclectic assortment of dances – waltzes, a gallop and a polka, all helping to establish the period of the story – juxtaposed against unaccompanied vocal recitatives and frequent ostinatos and fanciful scale figures in the piano. Harmonically Larsen writes within tonal centers without the music being tonal and uses the sound of chords to provide significant color for the text. The piano preparation requires an assortment of bolts, screws, a “blue” spoolie, a cotter pin and wooden peg. The score comes with instructions for precise implements and points of insertion between the strings of the piano, though it is hard to see how a 1” Phillips head screw affects the sound differently from a 1” single slit screw.
Regardless the type of screws used in the present performance, the music sounds alive, interesting and often wonderful. Aaron Engebreth sings with a bright, beautifully focused tone. He has a lovely high extension and an ability to deliver the text clearly and effectively. The cycle demands rich low register singing only in two lines of the last song. This Engebreth handles without difficulty. Although he helps to create the proper manic mood in the third and fourth songs and suggests a certain emotional disengagement at the beginning and end, I’m not sure I ever feel the character of Holmes in the performance. Maybe that’s the point, though. There simply was no personal or human side to Holmes. Alison d’Amato displays a wonderful range of energy and sensitivity in her playing that makes the matter-of-fact nature off the text chilling. Both artists are remarkably accurate in their reading of the score and provide a sense through artistic expression of how horribly inhuman we humans can be. Coordination between the video animation and the music is excellent and the entire production is strikingly engrossing. You may find this work troubling. It is, however, certainly absorbing and thought provoking.
Alison d'Amato, Pianist and Aaron Engebreath, Baritone - find out more about these artists at the Florestan Recital project website here