04 May 2008
Ned Rorem's Our Town
Martha Graham used to say, “In order for there to be dance, there must be something that needs to be danced.”
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
On August 7, 2014, the Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). The Impresario deals with the casting of an opera and Le Rossignol tells the well-known fairy tale about the plain gray bird with an exquisite song.
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
In typical Proms fashion, BBC Prom 28 saw Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed in an eclectic programme which started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture and also featured Electric Preludes by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean. Sakari Oramo,was making the first of his Proms appearances this year, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus.
Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time, Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.
Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
Martha Graham used to say, “In order for there to be dance, there must be something that needs to be danced.”
This occurred to me while attending Ned Rorem’s spare, elegant, uninteresting full-length opera (his first after a lifetime composing nearly every other sort of thing) derived from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play as rooted in the poetry of the ordinary (pre-World War I New England variety) as the operatic form seems calculated to enhance and transcend it. Mr. Rorem himself has said that when he first took on this project (here receiving its New York premiere — the world premiere took place two years ago) he pondered whether Our Town called for operatic treatment, and whether he was the man to set it. My guess is the answers in both cases are clearly negative, but he blithely went right ahead.
Is there anything in Our Town, a play in which God is the most prosaic of stage managers (agnostic to boot, as Wilder was), and death is restfully preferable to even the pleasantest sort of living, that could be enhanced by song? Perhaps — but not the sort of song Mr. Rorem has provided, the through-composed recitative of mid-twentieth-century opera without those embarrassing tune thingies that bear unfortunate comparison with weak Broadway musicals. When Mr. Rorem requires a real tune — a hymn for the burial of Emily, his heroine, say, or her wedding march — what we get is a traditional hymn sung against ironic orchestral discords, or a few bars of Mendelssohn — because Mr. Rorem can’t really be trusted (by his librettist, J.D. McClatchy, or by himself, evidently) to come up with anything that would conjure the notion of “hymn” or “wedding march” on his own bat. The dialogue of the opera — or should I say play? — is offered without emotion either because the play does not call for much of it or because the idiom in use does not. (I wasn’t sure.) The most appealing and interesting portions of Mr. Rorem’s contribution were the few — very few — times he allowed more than one person to sing together: a trio of taunting baseball players calling “George!” when the hero pays too much attention to the girl he is sweet on, or the chorale of the dead that opens Act II. Otherwise, there isn’t much here here. If you’re going to make an opera, you really ought to let people let loose to sing a bit.
We do get singable vocal lines — after half a century producing beloved art songs, there isn’t much about writing graciously for the voice that Mr. Rorem does not know. It can’t be an accident that the large cast of Juilliard students with a considerable and varied level of experience all sounded able and grateful. The opera gives each one his or her moment — which no doubt will win it a future in the repertory of music schools if nowhere else. That’s too bad if it gets in the way of productions of better works for large casts, such as The Mother of Us All or The Ballad of Baby Doe.
The Mother of Us All gives us a hint about what went wrong in Our Town: Thomson took Gertrude Stein’s text, as he had the earlier Four Saints in Three Acts, and set it just as he found it, using the hymn tune background of his Missouri upbringing to create a nostalgic rather than referential score, full of original flavor. Rorem, though he comes from the same part of the country and, like Thomson, was educated in Paris by Nadia Boulanger, has self-consciously divorced himself from Americana and can find no way to link back to it. His hymn is not a charming in-the-style-of, but an intrusion. Nothing downhome permeates the background here. As for the play, it is typical of the libretto that the witty sidelong touches, geological and statistical “newsbreaks” quoted by one character or another, find no answering wit in Rorem’s music — they appear only in the surtitles. If the opera were produced without them, they’d have to go. Wilder’s balance of the quotidian with the eternal is unsprung, here and elsewhere. McClatchy and Rorem simply did not trust their material. Or (very likely) Our Town is a play requiring no song at all — it’s got its own, as much as it could ever need.
It was difficult not to compare Our Town to another American opera I’d seen recently: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Did this stage work respond adequately to, or even explicate, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy? There’s no way for me, only vaguely familiar with that philosophy or that life, to judge, but what Satyagraha did do was concoct so pleasing a musical language for that life that audiences are drawn to contemplate its meaning and achievement, both of which are undoubtedly worthy of operatic grandiloquence — rather the way Stein and Thomson meditated on Susan B. Anthony’s achievement in The Mother of Us All. Our Town may or may not deserve musicalization on some level, but the musical language Rorem has provided is inadequate to draw us in, to make us think the question worth resolving. We simply don’t want to spend time with this music. We’d rather hear Mendelssohn straight.
The expert Juilliard cast was led by Jennifer Zetlan, who sang Emily at the premiere, whose unsettlingly bright smile when she meets the other dead folks in the graveyard was presumably approved by the composer, and whose big bright soprano seems destined to fill larger houses in the very near future. I especially liked the voice and poise of Jessica Klein as Mrs. Gibbs and Julie Boulianne as a nosey neighbor, Marc Webster and David McFerrin as the two fathers (both given charming, self-involved monologues), and Alex Mansoori’s regal calm as the almighty Stage Manager. If there was an unappealing voice in all the large cast, it passed me completely. Now if only they’d been singing something that needed to be sung.