Album Review:  ‘Your Clear Eye’

A must for lovers of art songs
September 25, 2018 Updated: September 25, 2018

Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956 in Oceanside, NY) has long been recognized as one of America’s leading composers of art songs and operas. His opera of “Grapes of Wrath” was a triumph when it was performed in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in 2010. Among his exciting works in progress is the opera “Intimate Apparel” with a libretto by Lynn Nottage, commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Gordon first heard soprano Jennifer Zetlan at the Juilliard premiere of Ned Rorem and Sandy McClatchy’s opera “Our Town” and later in Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’s “Two Boys” at the Metropolitan Opera. He states in the liner notes: “Again, her clarion tone combined with her honest simplicity amazed me.” Gordon got the chance to work with her on his opera, “Morning Star.” Afterward, he decided to make a recording with her of his songs accompanied by himself on piano.

The result “Your Clear Eye,” (Zetlan’s solo album debut on Bright Shiny Things) is a stunning collection of Gordon’s settings of poems by Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath.

The CD includes an 11-song cycle to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, “Too Few the Mornings Be,” which was written for and first performed by soprano Renée Fleming.

Probably no American poet has inspired as many songs and theatrical works as Emily Dickinson (1830- 1886). In recent months, there have albums of settings of her poetry by classical composer Gordon Getty and jazz improvisations by Jane Ira Bloom on “Wild Lines” with readings of Dickinson’s poems. Last year was the film, “A Quiet Passion” (starring Cynthia Nixon as the poet) and currently on stage “Because I Could Not Stop: An Encounter with Emily Dickinson” (starring Angelica Page). There had previously been settings of Dickinson’s poetry by Aaron Copland, André Previn and Vincent Persichetti. The reclusive poet would no doubt have been shocked to know that her life and work (mostly unpublished during her lifetime) would become such a significant part of American culture.

The songs in the cycle are:  Too Few the Mornings Be, If all the Griefs, The Bustle in a House, Letter to the World, You Cannot Put a Fire Out, Bee! I’m Expecting You, Poor Little Heart, I’m Nobody, How Happy is the Little Stone, Estranged from Beauty, and Will There Really Be a Morning?

The last is already a classic and appeared on Nadine Sierra’s new album, “There’s a Place for Us.” Sierra’s version has an orchestral accompaniment and Zetlan’s has Gordon’s piano accompaniment.

For a comparison of two composers setting the same poem, listen to Gordon’s luscious ballad of “Will There Really Be a Morning?” with Previn’s sprightly version.

The album ends with a world premiere recording of Sylvia Plath’s “Child” from which the album title is taken: The first line from Plath’s poem is: “Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing. I want to fill it with color, and ducks …”

Gordon picked the right singer for this recording and the two mesh perfectly. Zetlan’s singing is beautiful and she has exceptionally clear enunciation. (The liner notes have all the texts.) She also burrows into the changing mood of each piece in an outstanding debut recording for the singer.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.