Late in the autumn of 1909, Nora Barnacle – lover and muse to James Joyce – was left in Trieste to raise their children while he travelled to Dublin. Fearing Joyce’s susceptibility to other women, Nora initiated a series of correspondence designed to keep her lover faithful. There ensued some of the most gleefully frank sexual letters of any literary remains: filthy as Catullus and tender as Woolf, Nora’s are lost (perhaps to spare her blushes, perhaps for lack of having been cherished), but four of Joyce’s endure, to be shared online (often coyly bowdlerised, even now) and read furtively or delightedly in scholarly collections.
Composer Stephen Crowe – himself an affirmed Joycean – has created from these ‘dirty letters’ a song cycle which contrives to match the notoriously ribald tone of the correspondence with intricate, innovative musical settings and a startlingly present evocation of the purblind Modernist himself.
Premiering at the Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival, Crowe’s The Dorty Letters of James Joyce succeeds because it is so responsive to the text. Rather than merely using Joyce’s correspondence as a vehicle for musical innovation for its own sake – an enterprise which would be little more than egoism and would almost certainly bore the audience to tears – Crowe engages acutely with the content, shifting adroitly from visceral, frantic passages to moments of melancholy and tenderness, entirely as the letters demand. Nor does he shy away from acknowledging that it is almost impossible for a tenor to declaim “My naughty little fuckbird!” without raising a titter here and there. Without precisely descending to musical jokes, there are touches of wit that pierce through inevitable moments of audience embarrassment, as if to say: It is okay to laugh – he probably did.
The success of the enterprise rests, onstage, on the shoulders of tenor Oliver Brignall as James Joyce – and happily, he is more than up to the task. The demanding score requires not only the ability to hymn, straight-faced, the joys of coprophilia to the attendance of a farting wind instrument, but to bring pathos and sweetness to musical motifs evoking Joyce’s homesickness, or his loving nicknames for Nora (“My strange-eyed Ireland – my dark-blue rain-drenched flower”).
Pianist Genevieve Ellis has proved her near-supernatural energy and dexterity on previous Crowe endeavours including The Francis Bacon Opera, and excels herself here. Benedict Taylor, Tom Jackson and James Taylor are similarly excellent, their musicianship extending well beyond the saxophone and viola to grunts, lip-smacking, and the thudding of a large and very heavy book.
Of the four letter-songs, the final lacks the polish of the first three: a little frayed around the edges, it has an improvisational air, and it will be interesting to hear and see how it develops in the song-cycle’s future lives (as the programmes notes, ‘this is a work in progress’.)
Joyce is – or at any rate pretends to be – neither above nor beneath any sexual peccadillo you care to mention, and several which you may not. And yet the letters are not truly dirty, not at all – not unless you consider desire between two who’ve loved each other for many years and will love for many more to be dirt. Much of what Joyce proposes may well be not to one’s taste, and he is eye-wateringly, ecstatically direct in a manner the Earl of Rochester would certainly have admired. But all through the stained underwear and the rantic ‘frigging’, with their remarkable musical setting, the audience comes to understand what Crowe has understood: really, these are the love letters of James Joyce.