Within a week in late April the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra played in two local venues, at Glendale‘s Alex Theater and UCLA’s Royce Hall, and three on the East Coast, Portland, Hartford and at Manhattan‘s Carnegie Hall. I heard the first and the last. Thomas Quasthoff was soloist in all five concerts: Bach’s “Kreuzstab” Cantata (known in enlightened circles as “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear”) and Ravel‘s 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 Kern’s “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 Kern’s 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 music‘s treasures is to suggest a rethinking of the place and history of America’s musical theater. As it happens, I‘d heard rather a lot of American attempts at opera composition these past few weeks, which I’ll get back to in a minute. Quasthoff‘s singing of “Ol’ Man River” set them all adrift.
Haydn‘s Symphony No. 102 began the Chamber Orchestra’s programs, superior music even among that composer‘s 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 Kahane’s pacing and for the elegance of Allan Vogel‘s oboe solos and Kenneth Munday’s recounting of the Great Bassoon Joke in the finale. At the end came Ginastera‘s 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 you’re 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 Ward’s The Crucible, commissioned in 1961 by the New York City Opera, was that kind of beast: Arthur Miller‘s powerful drama (Joseph McCarthy’s inquisitors thinly disguised as Salem‘s witch-hunters) diluted and overperfumed by its sweet, modern-but-not-so-bad music. Speaking at USC before last month’s production by the USC Thornton Opera Workshop at the Flora L. Thornton School of Music in cooperation with the USC Thornton Chamber Orchestra — doesn‘t 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 Lindberg’s musical direction, had been gulled into learning the music‘s banalities. If this constitutes a learning experience, it’s 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 Harbison‘s 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 Fitzgerald’s 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 Met‘s 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 Fitzgerald’s fantasy. James Levine, who conducted, is said to hold Gatsby in high regard. His work, Upshaw‘s 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 dramatist’s 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-Ferrari‘s 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 Domingo’s own Washington Opera — but I don‘t think it’s too soon to man the battlements.