Going With the Flow
Within a week in late April the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played in two local venues, at Glendales Alex Theater and UCLAs Royce Hall, and three on the East Coast, Portland, Hartford and at Manhattans Carnegie Hall. I heard the first and the last. Thomas Quasthoff was soloist in all five concerts: Bachs Kreuzstab Cantata (known in enlightened circles as Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear) and Ravels Don Quichotte a Dulcinee in the local events, two Bach cantatas in the others. At all concerts this phenomenal -- and phenomenally charming -- singer obliged the tumultuous audience response with the same encore, Jerome Kerns Ol Man River.
Noble and moving as was the Bach, deliciously insinuating as was the Ravel cycle, that encore was even more amazing. It came across not merely as a fine realization of Kerns rolling, stirring lyrical line; it was like a reinvention of the song, and an installation of it as a cornerstone of an entire American theatrical language. Never mind that the words this time bore the ever-so-slight tinge of a Germanic enunciation; never mind the unlikelihood of this particular singer ever having to tote that barge, lift that bale. To hear this music shaped with such conviction by a singer whose Bach, Mozart and Schubert -- not to mention his indispensable new Deutsche Grammophon disc of German comic-opera arias -- rank among musics treasures is to suggest a rethinking of the place and history of Americas musical theater. As it happens, Id heard rather a lot of American attempts at opera composition these past few weeks, which Ill get back to in a minute. Quasthoffs singing of Ol Man River set them all adrift.
Haydns Symphony No. 102 began the Chamber Orchestras programs, superior music even among that composers sublime final works, astounding in the solemn beauty of its sinuous slow-movement theme, captivating for the jokey scoring of the finale. It made for a superb visiting-orchestra piece, for the fine balance in Jeffrey Kahanes pacing and for the elegance of Allan Vogels oboe solos and Kenneth Mundays recounting of the Great Bassoon Joke in the finale. At the end came Ginasteras Variaciones Concertantes, another showoff piece but of lesser substance (and a decided downer after the Quasthoff solos). At the Alex the performance had at least been sprightly; at Carnegie, even in the air space of that acoustical marvel, it sounded decidedly tired -- proving that if youre going to play the same music five times in a week it had better be good.
American opera took a wrong turn not long after Ol Man River. Porgy and Bess was polluted at the start by its dreams of grandeur, its reaching out toward Wagnerian -- or, at least, Puccinian -- models; the later, slimmed-down version with spoken dialogue instead of recitative is far more moving. After WWII there was American opera by the carload, much of it financed by ill-considered foundation grants, almost all of it in a further attempt to recapture Puccini as one of our own. Robert Wards The Crucible, commissioned in 1961 by the New York City Opera, was that kind of beast: Arthur Millers powerful drama (Joseph McCarthys inquisitors thinly disguised as Salems witch-hunters) diluted and overperfumed by its sweet, modern-but-not-so-bad music. Speaking at USC before last months production by the USC Thornton Opera Workshop at the Flora L. Thornton School of Music in cooperation with the USC Thornton Chamber Orchestra -- doesnt this get a tad ridiculous, or at least thorny? -- the beaming, white-maned Ward was every bit the Central Casting paragon of the distinguished elder creator of the artistically bland. An adept young cast, under Timothy Lindbergs musical direction, had been gulled into learning the musics banalities. If this constitutes a learning experience, its only the study of how easily great dramatic material can be turned into mush when the price is right.
At the Metropolitan there was more mush: John Harbisons short-of-the-mark stab at turning The Great Gatsby into opera, brought back for a second run after two years. On the operatic stage there is no more of the shape of Gatsby than in the various attempts to capture its essence on film. The power of F. Scott Fitzgeralds novel is its very novelistic perfection; its characters are so fully formed on the page, and live so completely within us when we set the book down, that any further attempt to give them flesh becomes an exercise in redundancy. Jay Gatsby is only reduced in the person of Alan Ladd or Robert Redford -- and the more fatally disintegrated in the drabness (sight and sound, both) of the Mets Jerry Hadley. So -- and this I report with some incredulity -- is the otherwise adored person of Dawn Upshaw, her earthbound girlishness at odds with the disembodied, green-lit Daisy of Fitzgeralds fantasy. James Levine, who conducted, is said to hold Gatsby in high regard. His work, Upshaws loveliness even when miscast as here -- and two brief scenes in which Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, as the tragic Myrtle Wilson, did indeed set the stage ablaze -- were reasons enough for frittering away a New York evening at Gatsby. When those participants move on, as they someday must, I hold little hope for the opera.
Better than either of these -- but clobbered by the predatory New York press -- was Stephen Paulus taut, elegant retelling of Heloise and Abelard, for which Frank Corsaro provided the libretto and directed the Juilliard Opera Theater production (with, of all people, our own Miguel Harth-Bedoya on the podium). This is Paulus eighth opera; The Postman Always Rings Twice is his best-known. The new work is real opera: memorable, even heart-rending ensembles, characters nicely drawn, scenes shaped with a dramatists hand and not a moment too long, vocal lines the work of a composer who knows the voice and what it can do. Perhaps I liked it so well on Saturday night because of the monstrosity that afternoon, but I came home from New York with this work out front in my memory.
The monstrosity was Sly, Ermanno Wolf-Ferraris unendurable pastiche of thirdhand Puccini and a whiff of Stravinsky badly comprehended. The Domingos have taken it on. Placido gets a couple of loud, squally arias; Marta gets to try more of her misblocked, clumsy stage direction. The production, which Placido is said to own outright, mirrors the drabness of the score and adds a few visual insults along the way. No announcement has yet surfaced as to the future of this abomination -- which originated at Domingos own Washington Opera -- but I dont think its too soon to man the battlements.
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