For Whom the Bell Tolls
Music by Brian Wilbur Grundstrom
Libretto by David Dorsen
Book by Ernest Hemingway
An attorney who has written an award-winning biography of Henry Friendly, one of the great judges of the 20th century, David Dorsen choose Grundstrom to compose music to his libretto.
Hemingway (1899-1961) has earned a place in American culture, and his For Whom the Bell Tolls remains current today. As per the Hemingway estate, there has never been an opera based on a novel by Hemingway. Set in the important historic period of the Spanish civil war during the late 1930’s, the novel explores the first direct confrontation between the two main negative forces in the 20th century -- communism and fascism. The story lends itself well to an opera, providing many opportunities for great music, with passion, betrayal, reconciliation, sacrifice, humor, and more. The leading characters are powerful: Robert Jordan (tenor) is the American directed by the Russians to enlist a local band of guerillas to blow up a bridge; Pablo (baritone) is the former leader of the band who betrays the others by throwing away the detonators for the dynamite; the domineering Pilar (dramatic mezzo) is Pablo’s wife and has taken control of the band; and Maria (lyric soprano), who has been rescued by the band and represents lost innocence, falls in love with Jordan. The powerful anti-war message resonates with today’s audience, and is worthy of exploration.
Designed to be performed on a relatively modest budget, there is no chorus, elaborate scenery or costumes. In addition to the four leads, there are only four singing men in Pablo's band. The orchestration has been kept small for affordability, and includes 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and strings (4,4,4,3,2).
The recording took place at Omega Studios near DC. Their large studio was sufficient to hold the 35 members of the orchestra. The vocalists were in an isolation booth for more control. The studio has recorded operas before and is known as one of the best in the Washington DC area.
Act II starts with German planes flying over the cave on their way to destroy El Sordo and his band. Pilar tells Jordan that Pablo has disappeared, taking a horse and the detonators for the dynamite. Pablo reappears and announces that he has decided to rejoin the band. He has thrown away the detonators, so Jordan will have to improvise. Pablo goes out to try to find more men and horses. He returns successfully and they bomb the bridge, but suffer a number of fatalities, although the four principals survive. One by one the remaining members of the group race across a road on their way to safety. Jordan alone is shot and seriously injured. He is left behind with a machine gun to delay the fascists while the others, including a distraught Maria, make their escape.