by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2005.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago began life in the highest style, with Maria Callas making her American début. Fifty years on, it is probably in better health than any other opera company in America. Almost every performance is sold out, and the budget is in the black. Admittedly, you have to go elsewhere for radical ideas about production and repertory; Matthew Epstein, the artistic director, recently left after encountering opposition to his more adventurous plans. But the Lyric has a history of being one of very few American houses—the Houston Grand Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis also come to mind—where premières are routine, and that’s radical in itself. Usually, the collective genius of administration acts to stifle new opera, on the theory that audiences want only the aged, imported European product. True, if you hand out commissions to middle-of-the-road composers who prove maximally unobjectionable to the governing board, or to career academics who wouldn’t know a narrative arc if it hit them in the head, you will perpetrate expensive fizzles. If, on the other hand, you hire composers who love the logic of theatre more than the sound of their own voices, you may end up with a joyous hit like William Bolcom’s “A Wedding,” which opened at the Lyric this month.
Bolcom, now sixty-six, is the rare living classical composer whom God made with the theatre in mind. He has honed his craft in opera, musicals, concert song, and cabaret (he tours with his wife, Joan Morris). His signature work is “Songs of Innocence and of Experience,” a barbaric yawp of a piece that fuses William Blake’s poetry with a welter of musical traditions, from Shaker hymns to reggae. It had its première back in 1984 but was recorded for the first time this year, thanks to the Naxos label. “Songs” has an awesome aura not only because it embraces every imaginable style but because it gathers momentum and mystery as it moves along. The fact that Bolcom can knock out a Gershwinish tune like nobody’s business has caused him to be underrated in the glum colloquia of contemporary music, where, for a long time, melodies had the status of radioactive rodents, and where seriousness is often measured by counting how many disparate pitches and rhythms pile up in any one bar. Bolcom aims for a higher complexity, a personal fusion of style and form. This is the many-sided music theatre of Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, and Weill. It don’t get more serious than that.
“A Wedding” is Bolcom’s third work for the Lyric, the others being “McTeague” and “A View from the Bridge.” It takes off from Robert Altman’s 1978 film of the same title, about an all-American train wreck of a wedding where old money and nouveau riche collide. Arnold Weinstein, Bolcom’s longtime lyricist-librettist, worked with Altman to reduce the original cast of forty-eight characters to a still formidable assortment of nineteen. Here goes: The old-money matriarch—Nettie Sloan, of Lake Forest, Illinois—dies in the second scene, but her haughty, melancholy spirit hovers over the messy party that follows. Her daughters and in-laws include a factory owner who employs illegal immigrants (Beth Clayton); a doctor turned dealer in Pollock, De Kooning, and Kline (Jake Gardner); a flaky interpretive dancer (Patricia Risley) who loves the family’s Caribbean butler (Mark Doss); an emotionally stunted morphine addict (Catherine Malfitano); and the groom, a military-academy graduate whose body is finer than his mind (Patrick Miller). The bride (Anna Christy) is an ingénue from Louisville, Kentucky, who has no idea what she’s getting into. Her parents are a reformed fornicator turned born-again millionaire (Mark Delavan) and a naïve belle who yearns for adventure (Lauren Flanigan). There are also Italians on the loose—the groom’s father (Jerry Hadley) and his brother from the old country (David Cangelosi)—together with a Communistic aunt (Kathryn Harries), a hired wedding guest (Timothy Nolen), an obsessive-compulsive wedding planner (Maria Kanyova), and the best man, an alcoholic marine (Brian Leerhuber). A few stray plot strands and a quizzical ending aside, it’s a deft libretto that balances zany double-entendres with plainspoken poetry, mocking exaggeration with empathetic realism.
The trick in assessing Bolcom’s music is to make it seem something other than a stylistic casserole. So let’s take it for granted that the composer creates precise pastiches of everything from Rossini to rockabilly; that he throws in delightful allusions, like the Messiaenic birds that chirp Mrs. Sloan awake on the last day of her life; that he comes up with at least three indelible tunes. What impressed me here was the glistening web of sound behind the carnival—the interlocking modes, the multiple tonal layers, the silken ostinatos based on fragments of ditties you’ve already heard. A lot of these framing devices are owed to Bolcom’s teacher, the ever-underrated Darius Milhaud, who, back in the twenties, stirred together samba, music-hall, and jazz. What I sometimes yearned for was the bitter taste of twenties Berlin to go along with the giddy kick of Paris. The creative team shied away from full-on screwball anarchy, from a lunge at the social jugular. For example, when the groom and the best man are discovered naked and drunk in the shower, you expect more of a payoff than a few puzzled shrugs. Then again, too much comic aggression might have unsettled the flow of Bolcom’s score, which is half ironic, half tender, and fully enchanting.
Altman directed the production, and his genius for handling ensemble casts translated easily to the opera stage. A production team led by the Broadway veteran Robin Wagner created a charming nightmare of middle-American taste, all creamy-white and pink and baby-blue. Dennis Russell Davies led the orchestra in a razor-sharp performance. The singers were obviously enjoying themselves hugely, not least because nearly everyone was given something with which to stop the show. Delavan shook his hips Elvis-style in “There was a time I was a drinker and a smoker.” Hadley and Cangelosi exulted in tenorissimo kitsch in their duet, “Prosciutto, mortadella.” Malfitano sent up her image as the queen of soprano hysteria with lines like “Oooh—what a teeny little needle can do.” Harries and Nolen plunged fearlessly into a quite naughty duet (“I’ve got a lot of lawn to mow”). Gardner and Flanigan, whose characters teeter on the edge of a dalliance before backing wistfully away, brought the house down with the strains of “Heaven, heaven, heaven, Tallahassee!” Then the mighty Flanigan topped herself with “A woman in love,” which would have left Gershwin unsure whether to applaud or to sue.
The Met may be somewhat clueless about contemporary opera, but it has put together two essentially perfect productions of golden oldies this fall. First came Julie Taymor’s “Magic Flute”; now comes Stephen Wadsworth’s “Rodelinda.” Many people thought that the intricate, intimate art of Handel could never work in the Met’s cavernous spaces, but Wadsworth proves otherwise. First of all, he plays “Rodelinda” absolutely straight, skipping the campy antics that other directors impose on Handel in the name of saving Baroque convention from itself. Wadsworth does take the liberty of moving a shadowy tale of medieval Lombardy—deposed king in hiding, queen who thinks herself a widow, anguished pretender, happily scheming villain—into the lustrous eighteenth century. The sets, by Thomas Lynch, are an ecstasy of detail: the audience actually gasped at the sight of the King’s library. Yet this is no Zeffirelli-style wax museum. The stage is filled with telling gestures, charged glances, meaningful motion. Wadsworth demonstrates that you don’t have to apply shock tactics to make an ancient opera come alive.
The cast on opening night delivered one of the strongest ensemble performances I’ve seen at the Met. Renée Fleming, who used her star power to bring “Rodelinda” to the house, comfortably inhabited the taxing title role, supplying acres of warmth and nuance without drawing attention from her co-stars. Bejun Mehta and David Daniels fought a friendly countertenor duel, with Mehta scoring points for form and Daniels for charisma and stamina. There was really no rational explanation for how Daniels could sail through his climactic Act III aria, “Vivi, tiranno,” as if he had just finished warming up. Stephanie Blythe sang with glowing emotional transparency; the South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg, as the usurper, etched every note; John Relyea rumbled happily as the basso villain. Harry Bicket drew uncannily stylish period sounds from the Met orchestra. The crowd devoured the four-hour marathon as if Handel were the new Puccini.
Both Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson have recently released disks of Handel arias, both with Bicket conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. When you listen to these two modern divas singing “Ombra mai fù” side by side, you begin to mistrust recording as a medium: beauty of this order shouldn’t be turned on at the touch of a button. Fleming sings the aria as a string of immaculate, silvery phrases—it’s come-over-here, you-have-to-see-this beautiful. Hunt Lieberson makes it one long breath, one extended sigh. It’s pull-down-the-blinds, unplug-the-telephone, can’t-talk-right-now beautiful. She’s singing it again; I have to go.