Jon Deak’s The Passion of Scrooge or A Christmas Carol, for baritone and ensemble is a setting of Charles Dickens’ well-loved seasonal story, written back in 1997/8. The libretto, which was prepared by the composer in collaboration with Isaiah Sheffer, is traditional in its approach, preserving the story’s essential elements—Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the visitation of the three spirits. What elevates this setting is Deak’s brilliantly atmospheric score, which skilfully integrates everything from Hollywood schmaltz to Schoenbergian monodrama.
This new version was made by independent filmmaker H. Paul Moon, the same man who put together Absolute Beauty, a superb life of Samuel Barber back in 2017. The filming of the work itself is done with grace and a wealth of musical understanding, camera angles and instrumental spotlighting feeling natural and unintrusive. At key moments Moon also chooses to cut in scenes from the 1935 cinematic adaption of the story, Scrooge. These help to set the scene, even though it is debatable whether they are necessary in a story this familiar.
There is a further element that is more problematic. The film is billed as an ‘opera within an opera.’ In this second layer the action cuts away from the stage performance to the composer, who appears to muse upon the act of composition and to draw parallels between Dickens’ story and his own life. The problem is that this element feels grafted on, not properly integrated. As such it interrupts the drama, breaking rather enhancing the spell cast by the work.
Performances are excellent. Soloist William Sharp is an effervescent presence, carrying the drama with passion, persuasion and good acting chops. The 21st century consort play stylishly under the direction of Christopher Kendall.
Without the ‘opera within an opera’ this recording would have been an easy Christmas recommendation. As it stands it is worth considering, just understand that there are caveats.