CD review: ‘Sappho’ the opera by Peggy Glanville-Hicks

The eagerly anticipated world premiere recording of Peggy Glanville-Hick’s opera Sappho, with libretto by Lawrence Durrell, is at last on the shelves, timed to perfection with the centenary of the composer’s birth on December 29th 2012 (d 25th June 1990).

The 2 CD set released by Toccata Classics is a recording of the complete opera in 3 acts, lasting a little over two hours. It is a substantial project with meticulous attention to quality and detail. The cast of soloists is little short of jaw-dropping, the orchestra and chorus are world class; the supporting literature is robust with archival photographs, biographies of writers and performers and the complete libretto.

The project has been the brainchild, and perhaps the raison d’etre  for the past 10 years of emerging conductor Jennifer Condon. As a high school student she heard a fragment from the opera and resolved to bring the entire work to reality. After studying piano and conducting in Sydney, Melbourne, Vienna and Germany, she has worked as souffleuse at the Hamburg Staatsoper since 2008. She has gathered a wealth of luminaries from amongst her colleagues to perform in this recording. Deborah Polaski sings the title role with Sir John Tomlinson, Roman Trekel, Wolfgang Koch, Martin Homrich, Scott MacAllister and Laurence Meikle. Australian soprano and language coach Eilene Hannan worked with the singers to achieve a uniform ‘Australian’ sounds in the delivery of the text.

The solo singing is magnificent; the ensemble playing and singing move through the thrilling overture, to gentle support, noisy crowds and drunken rabble with surety. The diction is superb. The performance evokes all the elements of a Greek drama.

The biggest revelation of the recording however, is the music of Peggy Glanville-Hicks. Though based in the traditions of western classical music, her aesthetic was informed by her travels and her philosophy and draws on an eclectic mix of Greek modes, Indian ragas, ancient Italian, Spanish and Caribbean influences. The music of the opera is distinctly modal with instrumentation, rhythms and ornaments that conjure images of a dangerously exotic Mediterranean epic.

Most of the tale is told by the main protagonists in declamatory style. When the chorus is heard, it is mostly in unison. There is little vocal harmony or smaller ensemble singing. However, there are some notably beautiful lyrical arias which are likely to enter the repertoire, now that they have been resurrected: Sappho’s arias Now everything is silence and remoteness, and My sleep is fragile, Phaon’s Solitude I knew and I am very tired (Minos).

Peggy Glanville-Hicks was awarded more recognition in the her lifetime than she has received after her death. That she made her mark as a living female composer at a time when such a breed was a rarity and a curiosity, is a testament to her opus.The Melbourne born Glanville-Hicks began composing at the age of 7 and studied music at the Melba Conservatorium. In 1932 she moved to London where she studied piano, composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music with Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Sir Malcolm Sargent and Sir Arthur Benjamin. She studied for a year in Vienna and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. In 1942 she moved to New York where she made her career as a respected composer, critic, writer and director. After nearly 20 years she moved to Greece and lived there until her return to Australia in 1975.

She won awards from The Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations and the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as a Fulbright award. On her return to Australia, she was a consultant for Asian Music Studies at the Australian Music Centre in Sydney, and in 1987 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by the University of Sydney.

The musicians in this first performance have the privilege of being the original interpreters without comparison or precedent. As a recording, it leaves to the imagination some tickling questions of dramatisation. For now, the project has hopefully paved the way for wider recognition of the work and its composer and for its realisation as a fully staged opera in the not too distant future. Jennifer Condon is determined that this ambition too will come to fruition.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Sappho opera in 3 acts by Peggy Glanville-Hicks with libretto by Lawrence Durrell is available as a 2 CD set on Toccata Classics (TOCC 0154055). Visit for your nearest distributor or email

Deborah Polaski, soprano: Sappho
Martin Homrich, tenor: Phaon
Scott MacAllister, tenor: Pittakos
Roman Trekel, baritone: Diomedes

Wolfgang Koch, bass-baritone: Minos
Sir John Tomlinson, bass: Kreon
Jacquelyn Wagner, soprano: Chloe/Priestess
Bettina Jensen, soprano: Joy
Maria Markina, mezzo soprano: Doris
Laurence Meikle, baritone Alexandrian
Coro Gulbenkian, choir
Orquestra Gulbenkian, orchestra
Jennifer Condon, conductor

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