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Timeless and Timely

Anyone who attended the Glynde-bourne Festival Opera‘s 1996 production of Handel’s Theodora is probably still talking about it; the event has assumed the stature of legend. Now we all can sample its splendors; the complete performance is finally available on two cassettes from Kultur Video, priced at a heartwarmingly low 30 bucks. Its release at this time is weirdly appropriate.

Peter Sellars directed, redeeming himself with Glyndebourne‘s implacable audience after his, let’s say, curious Magic Flute set on a Los Angeles freeway. Not that Sellars set his Theodora as written, in the fourth-century pagan Rome of Thomas Morell‘s libretto; his Christian heroine and her lover Didymus suffer martyrdom in a 21st-century America where orthodoxy is defined by a right-wing militarist society and heresy is any act of believing otherwise. His thought-police march in bomber jackets and latter-day patriotic insignia, and they indulge in strange calisthenics of some unidentified significance that are, at least, fun to watch. The simple set, a row of oversize urns of undefined provenance and age, adds to the message: The tyranny and persecution that the fourth-century Romans employed to clear their streets of nonbelievers are timeless phenomena.

You couldn’t dream up a finer performing group, almost all American, by the way. William Christie conducts the elegant small ensemble known -- deservedly -- as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Dawn Upshaw is the Theodora, noble, pure and immensely moving; Lorraine Hunt (now Hunt-Lieberson), her companion Irene; the spectacularly gifted countertenor David Daniels is Didymus. (On the Harmonia Mundi Theodora conducted by Nicholas McGegan, Lorraine Hunt sings the title role; the experience of hearing this one-of-a-kind dramatic artist in both major roles transforms the extravagance of owning both versions into a privilege.)

The fluidity and fervor of Handel‘s great score, one of his last works and his only overtly ”Christian“ oratorio besides the Messiah, justifies the work’s being staged at all, plumbed for its eternal message and set forth at Glyndebourne as fiery, passionate human drama. Opera on video is inevitably a half-a-loaf proposition, and Theodora, be warned, runs 206 minutes. Give it to yourself, and give yourself to it.

And while we‘re on the subject of compassionate conservatism -- which, in a sense, we are -- consider Ned Rorem, whose music I consider paradigmatic in proving that a composer’s chosen style means less than the uses to which it is put -- or, in other words, that paradigms don‘t always work. More Than a Day, the song cycle he wrote in 1995 for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on a Betty Freeman commission, has now found its way to disc; countertenor Brian Asawa is again the eloquent singer, as he was at the premiere here; Jeffrey Kahane conducts. Jack Larson’s poetry, love songs to his companion, filmmaker James Bridges, takes on a new beauty in Rorem‘s setting as a memorial after Bridges’ death. If ever ”compassion“ could take shape as music, it would be here. (With all the talk these days about major producers abandoning classical recording, this RCA disc may be another kind of memorial as well.)

Among journalists and other list makers who endure anxiety pangs when confronted with unlabeled merchandise, Rorem counts as a conservative; that can be taken to mean that his music tends not to frighten small children as do the works of the fearsome Webern or Stockhausen. Once in a while, we can rest assured, we might even come across something in his music that sounds like something else we‘ve heard. Another recent disc, on Erato, offers Susan Graham’s singing of 32 Rorem songs, settings of poems of Whitman, Tennyson, Stein, Yeats -- a veritable anthology of the lyric impulse, each poet differently and memorably colored in iridescent music. The collection then becomes no less a portrait of Rorem himself, a sublimely reactive artist in a world that may not entirely deserve him.

Heiner Goebbels‘ Surrogate Cities, newly out in ECM’s usual handsome black-and-white packaging, counts as unlabeled merchandise, and all the better; I find it exhilarating, on a purely gut-grabbing level. Commissioned to celebrate the 1,200th birthday of Frankfurt, and given its first American performance at Charleston‘s Spoleto Festival last June, it is truly a work about cities. If Surrogate Cities is about anything else -- and I’m still working on that -- it‘s about its own energy, pounding, uncoiling, as bleak as the empty cityscape on the jacket, somehow irresistible.

An opening ”Suite for Sampler and Orchestra“ blends hard urban noises (Berlin, New York, Tokyo) into a collage of recorded voices -- including one of an ancient Jewish cantor in the coloratura-falsetto manner long out of style and thus sounding as if from another world. The vocalists, David Moss and Jocelyn B. Smith, mostly sing songs about murder and the madness of cities. Peter Rundel conducts the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, with the percussion practically in your lap. The very denseness of the work’s content develops an explosive energy; you want to seek shelter, or at least stand back. It lasts about 70 minutes. When it‘s over, you’re going to need some Schubert.

Franz Schubert‘s F-minor Fantasy for piano duet was another product of that inexplicable flowering of expressive genius in his last year. My amazed discovery of that work as a student in Berkeley gave me the thesis topic of my dreams; I still cannot hear, or even think about, that F-major modulation on the third page without going all shivers. In Sunshine, one of this summer’s more commendable films, Schubert‘s Fantasy is the recurrent icon, although the actors who perform the work never make it to the man-eating fugue at the end (nor do I). But the director, Istvan Szabo, does the right thing by that modulation; it occurs only at the film’s end, when the sun truly shines.

In Time Regained, another of the summer‘s superior films, the music is truly bad, and that, too, is exactly right. Scholars usually assume that the composer Vinteuil in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is based on Saint-Saens; maybe so, in terms of the character‘s glib opportunism and prodigious musical output. But Jorge Arriagada’s film score is all slither and the rustle of silks, beyond the reach of the perpetrator of Samson et Dalila. It comes to its climax as Vinteuil‘s latest violin sonata is introduced at a belle-epoque gathering: a keenly observed, absolutely right-on parody of the worst piece of salon bathos ever to flow from the pens of the Messrs. Hahn, Samazeuilh, Duparc and their ilk. Go from that splendid film to your stereo; put on some chamber music by, say, Ernest Chausson, and try to keep a straight face. I’ll bet you can‘t.