Philip Glass writes so many operas for so many companies that it sometimes takes years for his works to find their way to New York. “The Juniper Tree” didn’t have far to travel: Its premiere was at the American Repertory Theater, in Cambridge, Mass. But that was in 1985, and it took until Tuesday evening for this chamber opera to have a New York performance: an unstaged concert version at Alice Tully Hall by the Collegiate Chorale, with help from the Orchestra of St. Luke's and Michael Riesman, Mr. Glass’s house conductor.
Actually “The Juniper Tree” is not pure Glass, but a collaboration with the composer Robert Moran, in which the two evenly divided the scenes. Mr. Moran’s style, while as tonal as Mr. Glass’s, is rhythmically more varied and less given to repeated tropes. Yet their approaches easily mesh, perhaps because each borrowed the other’s themes to give the piece a unified veneer.
The libretto, by Arthur Yorinks, is based on a story by the Brothers Grimm, in which a jealous stepmother murders her stepson (who, she fears, reminds her husband of his first wife) and feeds the murdered boy to his father in a stew. The boy’s half sister buries his bones beneath the juniper tree (where his mother is buried). But it all turns out fine, since the boy returns as a magical bird, with gifts for the father and half-sister, and a millstone, which he drops on his stepmother, crushing her.
Mr. Glass’s music, with its energetic chord patter, flutey arpeggios and brass accenting, is oddly cheerful during the darker parts of this story; Mr. Moran’s is notably less so. But the score includes several strikingly dramatic pieces (the stepmother’s frenzied jealousy aria) and beautifully lyrical ones (the boy’s bird song and much of the half sister’s music.)
The cast was strong and well matched. Kevin Deas brought a deep, resonant tone to the father’s few scenes, and Ilana Davidson’s attractive soprano created an instant sympathy for the first wife. Stella Zambalis sang the stepmother with a suitably sharp edge, and ample power, and Elizabeth Hillebrand portrayed the half sister with an alluring innocence. Anita Johnson brought a similar, if more plaintive, quality to the son.
Roger Rees was listed as the director, but there was no staging to speak of. Much of the narrative was conveyed in projected text, which shared a screen with Maurice Sendak’s illustrations of the tale. Mr. Riesman conducted an energetic performance, but the orchestra’s playing was lukewarm, with balance and intonation problems taking their toll.