The Witches of Venice

CD Review by Gregory S. Burkart

As I continue my focus on darkly whimsical musical entertainment for the Halloween season, let me shift your attention, only slightly, into allegedly more highbrow territory. Too silly for some, too pompous and austere for others, but a damn good time in my opinion, this surprising discovery is based on the celebrated children's book by author & artist Beni Montressor, adapted by Philip Glass in the mid-nineties on commission by Milan's legendary Scala - perhaps the most famous opera house in the world ? and at last available for purchase.

Witches blends playful mischief, epic bombast and unsettling chills into an unforgettable concoction - arguably one of the most deranged works ever recorded under the guise of ?children's music.? Entirely synthesizer-based, in the mode of Glass's score for Bernard Rose's Candyman, this opera conjures the sensation of being witness to a bizarre electronic ceremony ? something Glass so eloquently captured in that film. Except this one features a solo performed by a troll accompanied by thunderous sampled farts.

Set during Carnival time in the title locale, Witches tells the tale of a ?plant-boy? grown from a magical seed, sold by fairies to a king seeking an heir to the throne. Ultimately abandoned and locked away from view as a non-person, the sad hero eventually escapes and sets out on a dangerous quest through a sinister fantasy world filled with mischievous sprites, vain ogres and the title witches, who oddly enough have a little plant-girl of their own held captive in their spooky castle.

The boy's birth, imprisonment, escape and magical rescue mission is detailed in 24 musical vignettes, each signified by a style ranging from sweetly melancholy to completely bonkers. Several tracks simply begin with hysterical laughter, wild screeches or the mad cackling of the witches as they concoct their devilish schemes. Others sung by the child portraying the plant-boy are heartbreakingly touching. The manic, prancing energy of Carnival is consistent in many of the more humorous songs, but there are many moments of creepy menace, suggested by dark bass swells and sudden booming percussive sound effects, as our vegetable-based hero eludes incredibly surreal dangers to rescue his companion. Despite the scarier elements ? or perhaps because of them - the melodies and rhythms are remarkably catchy (even if you don't know what the words mean) and clearly designed with children in mind, without ever collapsing into cloying cuteness.

Though trimmed down to a more digestible 70 minutes, the epic nature of this performance is captured nicely in the recent single-CD release, which has also recently become available for download... but those who go the extra mile and purchase the hard copy will have the added pleasure of receiving the accompanying illustrated storybook, which enables kids to follow the plant-boy's adventures from one musical passage to the next... much like those Disney record/book sets that kept me enraptured and horrified throughout my preschool years (and many years later served as sample libraries for many music mash-ups... don't tell the Disney Police). For the grownups, the book serves also as a libretto, with texts from the original Italian (as sung) and the English translation.

Those familiar with Glass's body of work generally fall in one of two camps: those who consider his cyclical, mathematical song patterns mesmerizing and profound, and those who dismiss his creations as repetitive, minimalist crap. There's really no middle ground. So if you're not a fan, this album won't change your mind. Personally, I love listening to the ever-evolving song structures, wondering what new patterns will emerge. The simplicity of children's themes is ideally suited to this style ? in fact, the more open mind of a young listener may even be better attuned to it. Maybe those musical farts help a bit too.