Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Die Walküre, Opera North

A day is now a very long time indeed in politics; would that it were otherwise. It certainly is in the Ring, as we move forward a generation to Die Walküre.

Early Gluck arias at the Wigmore Hall

If composers had to be categorised as either conservatives or radicals, Christoph Willibald Gluck would undoubtedly be in the revolutionary camp, lauded for banishing display, artifice and incoherence from opera and restoring simplicity and dramatic naturalness in his ‘reform’ operas.

Das Rheingold, Opera North

Das Rheingold is, of course, the reddest in tooth and claw of all Wagner’s dramas - which is saying something.

Peter Grimes in Princeton

The Princeton Festival presents one opera annually, amidst other events. Its offerings usually alternate annually between 20th century and earlier operas. This year the Festival presented Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, now a classic work, in a very effective and moving production.

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

If you like your Ariadne on Naxos productions as playful as a box of puppies, then Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is the address for you.

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis took forty years before attempting Verdi’s Macbeth but judging by the excellence of the current production, it was well worth the wait.

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

On June 16, 2016, Los Angeles Opera with Beth Morrison Projects presented the world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang's Anatomy Theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT).

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

In its compact forty-year history, the ambitious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has just triumphantly presented its twenty-fifth world premiere with Shalimar the Clown.

Jenůfa, ENO

The sharp angles and oddly tilting perspectives of Charles Edwards’ set for David Alden’s production of Jenůfa at ENO suggest a community resting precariously on the security and certainty of its customs, soon to slide from this precipice into social and moral anarchy.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.

Jenůfa in San Francisco

The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.

Musings on the “American Ring

Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.

Nabucco, Covent Garden

Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.

Tristan, English National Opera

My first Tristan, indeed my first Wagner, in the theatre was ENO’s previous staging of the work, twenty years ago, in 1996. The experience, as it should, as it must, although this is alas far from a given, quite overwhelmed me.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Ashley: Perfect Lives
12 Sep 2006

ASHLEY: Perfect Lives; Celestial Excursions; Foreign Experiences

Robert Ashley has the uncanny ability to sprinkle diamonds amidst great swaths of apparently trivial and quotidian detritus–diamonds that trigger the nervous system in an intensely stimulating fashion.

Robert Ashley. Perfect Lives. Lovely Music DVD 4917 [2DVDs]
Celestial Excursions. Lovely Music LCD 1007.
Foreign Experiences. Lovely Music LCD 1008.

Various artists

 

Ashley puts into close proximity two dramatic states–the first, a long, process-like state of suspended intelligence, a kind of cultivated stupor, the second constituting brief, extremely clear moments of heightened awareness, a sort of penetrating focus that cuts through the trivial and then transforms it into the meaningful.

Celestial_Excursion.jpg

If my description sounds like life under the influence of a cocktail of antidepressants laced with the occasional stimulant, so be it, for Ashley’s oeuvre, more so than any other composer’s work in this reviewer’s experience, comes the closest to confronting consciousness in a modern world of tailored pharmaceuticals. This is not to say his work is programmatic, designed by intent or by accident to resemble the workings of a sedated mind, for it is anything but sedate. Instead Ashley’s work confronts us with the same kind of consciousness that a life on Prozac (or vodka, or mushrooms, or trancing) mixed with occasional lapses into recreational pharmacy must confront us with. It addresses the potential for a deep and prolonged depression derived from the consciousness of the fact that the world our parents promised us so as to get us to sleep at night–filled as it was with regularity and good design–is a phantom, and it makes no sense (in opera or in the conduct of one’s daily affairs) to pretend otherwise.

Ashley’s operas follow in the mold of Beckett’s drama. As much as it hurts to recognize this fact, the world is comprised of characters taking ultimately random trajectories amidst great swaths of trivial and quotidian detritus. If we can find a few diamonds sprinkled in the refuse, we are much the better for it. Our world, if it doesn’t make complete sense, makes a kind of sense, sometimes brilliantly. Ashley’s opera, if they don’t make complete sense, make a kind of sense, often brilliantly.

To reiterate, Ashley puts into close proximity two dramatic states. The first of these–Beckett like in quality–takes us through a long process of seemingly random verbiage produced as if one were flipping channels through a dozen talk radio shows. This is the quintessential North American experience of the meaning of meaninglessness, a kind of Zen mindedness produced unintentionally (but not without design) by the unbridled proliferation of individually innocuous media. The flow produced thus in Ashley’s work has a chant-like quality, hypnotic and drone-like, which the musical accompaniment to the drama compliments perfectly. Into this ribbon of detritus, Ashley sows little snippets of lyric with a deceptive regularity, snippets of extreme importance to us, both as listeners and (in a sense that makes his work so important) as citizens, or at least denizens, of our modern world. Although it is quite impossible to say precisely what the relevance of these phrases is, either to the work at hand or to our interests (and even our best interests), we are riveted by them. They are redolent of meaning, if they don’t actually mean anything themselves. Here are two such snippets from Foreign Experiences, the end of scene 10 in Act 1:

Take a shower shave and sauce
Kiss the wife goodbye
Finish up the drugs
Make a few phone calls
Check with my broker

Opinion blew him up against the wall
Then having suffered enough or having
Been cleansed depending on your point of view
He was accepted as a neighbor they even started
Speaking English he could buy a loaf of bread he could
Get his shoes shined....

Foreign_Experiences.jpg

In the first instance, our parents never told us about the drugs, when they were discussing the other parts (our normal routines, from the shower to the broker); the second instance describes perfectly the average North American’s reception as a stranger entering a new neighborhood in the friendly global village, where television and the computer have done absolutely nothing to break down territoriality.

The kind of meaning produced here is like that given off by Thorton Wilder’s absolutely maudlin peon to American domesticity, the play Our Town. The essential meaning is all sidereal, which, despite the playwright’s best intentions, draws us back to the play again and again. This is a meaning without a central core; these are lives that derive meaning from convention rather than substance. Substance–dependency on drugs, acceptance by neighbors (and thus access to bread and vodka)–is glimpsed only in haphazard fashion. Substantial meaning benefits from this approach, since to stare at substance for too long is to remove it from one’s awareness.

Given these parameters–a sort of evaporated content that gives way every now and then to glimpses of substance–Ashley’s work derives its greatest characteristic quality from text enunciation and setting. Ashley, himself, takes many of the principal roles. His is a suitably monotonic voice, roughly articulated in some barely identifiable drawl (indecipherable to a Canadian, but situated presumably somewhere between the Carolinas and Texas). He sounds like someone overheard in the adjacent restaurant booth, every so slightly agitated or merely overstimulated, who carries on a monologue just slightly above the volume observed by decorum, and thus as good as in your face, since you and everyone else in the restaurant is drawn to it as if it were an aural magnet. This is a person saying in full voice things that are normally whispered in restaurant booths. The text works its way into the psyche as both forbidden and yet necessary, as uncomfortable and yet intensely interesting.

Ashley’s characters are made generally to articulate the text in a sort of bare enunciation–in a stupor, or trance like–against sparse accompaniment (monodic, in the sense of the term monodrama hearkening back to Peri and the origins of opera as drama). Worked into the flow are songs, duets, choruses, dramatic interjections. In Wagnerian fashion, the singers segue into and out of these indiscriminately; they seldom plant their feet and bring forth an aria.

I liken Ashley’s operas to Richard Ford’s Independence Day. We sense that great things–monumental things–are going on, of which the musical moments in the operas are but mere symptoms. The greatness is left inarticulate, merely sensed, slouching behind the sheer volume of the whole. Like Ford’s novel, Ashley’s work is centrally American–about American real estate, so to speak. The images that emerge have a particularly American quality about them: witness protection programs will be invoked alongside Death Valley segueing to Death’s Door Hospital, to “Somewhere in the Great Southwest,” and the Bob Willis Band, the “Milk Cow Blues,” Subaru, the sharp sound of a rifle and the subsequent sharp blow to the chest, an adopted daughter, Walnut, an American Indian.

The participants in these operas are familiar faces in the Ashley circle: Sam Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, Joan La Barbara, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Tom Hamilton, Thomas Buckner. Some have been with Ashley since the days of Perfect Lives (since the late 70's), and this familiarity is evident in the ease with which they perform his work. Of the three operas under review here, Foreign Experiences has a narrative tension unlike that seen before in Ashley’s operas–a taught quality that derives from the slightly paranoid nature of a protagonist. The two voices involved in this recording–Sam Ashley and Humbert–retain, however, the hypnotic quality of Ashley’s other work, paranoia aside, and the result is a very pleasant discrepancy between the obvious tension of the plot and the trance-like ease of the narrative. This calls to mind, again, pharmaceuticals, as if under heavy sedation one laughingly yields one’s now distant body into the waiting arms of a surgeon.

Ashley’s work is the central pillar of Lovely Music’s ever impressive catalog. Details can be had at their website: http://www.lovely.com/ . There is a thumbnail bio of Ashley at Wikipedia, with interesting links, and an excellent interview article at http://www.lovely.com/press/articles/Wire%20No.234.pdf . Early work is available through the “Art of the States” website and through the ever astonishing ubu.com.

Murray Dineen

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):