by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 28, 2005.
The Danish composer Poul Ruders is one of contemporary music’s free agents — a lover of sweet melodies with a yen for dark chords, a comedian with a flair for apocalypse. His previous opera, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” made sonic thunder out of Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian America ruled by Christian fundamentalists. His major orchestral pieces — “Thus Saw Saint John,” the “Solar Trilogy," a First Symphony subtitled “Rejoicing from the Heavens, Grieving Unto Death” — unfold hypnotically wayward narratives that reel from antic joy to frozen despair. (There are excellent recordings on the Bridge and Da Capo labels.) Ruders has a special knack for reinventing familiar tonal harmonies and styles; he uses them sometimes to mourn lost worlds, sometimes to suggest otherworldly innocence, sometimes to convey the banality of evil. All these devices are hurled at the audience in his latest work, “Kafka’s Trial,” which had its première on March 12th at the Royal Danish Theatre.
Composers are mysteriously drawn to “The Trial,” Kafka’s tale of a bank clerk randomly hounded by the Law. Perhaps, like poor Joseph K., they feel persecuted for no reason. Gottfried von Einem produced a straightforward, solemn adaptation in 1953. A decade later, Gunther Schuller, in “The Visitation,” boldly transposed the action to black America. Ruders, in tune with modern times, makes the story all about sex and guilt. The libretto, by Paul Bentley, blends scenes from Kafka’s life with scenes from the novel. The plot is framed by the author’s crazed epistolary engagement to Felice Bauer, who, in July, 1914, convened a family tribunal in a Berlin hotel room to confront her fiancé with his neuroses. In the wake of that fiasco, Kafka wrote “The Trial.” Bentley believes that Kafka considered himself guilty of misleading Bauer, and that the killing of Joseph K. at the end of the novel is a form of self-criticism. Kafka scholars may not buy that theory, but there’s no harm in rewriting history if it makes for good theatre.
Alas, it doesn’t. Ruders has said in interviews that he wanted to write a Kafka comedy, or, rather, a comic nightmare. The problem is that the material of both the novel and the life is, at best, morbidly amusing, and Ruders can’t make it funny by force. The score has too many grotesque, wheezing episodes, too much infernal-machine music. The parodic touches are stale: klezmer references in the Kafka sections (the only sign of the writer’s Jewishness), a groaningly obvious quotation from “Don Giovanni” (“Joseph K.! Joseph K.!,” à la the Commendatore). Kafka’s air of gnomic mystery, his Hebraic awe before the inexpressible, fades away. The climax of the novel is the chapter “In the Cathedral,” where Joseph K. glimpses fate in all its hostile majesty. Ruders ordinarily thrives on gothic atmosphere—he once made a bone-chilling setting of Poe’s “The City in the Sea”—but his cathedral scene feels strangely attenuated, as if he were afraid of losing comic momentum. The music acquires the right dark magic only at the end, when Felice confronts Kafka. Here, finally, is urgent word-setting over pungent chords, such as Ruders supplied throughout “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (Both Ruders operas, by the way, can be performed in English.)
I hesitate to render a final judgment on “Kafka’s Trial,” because the opera was hobbled by a spectacularly stupid production, which erased the distinction between real life and fiction and buried all the characters in an onslaught of puerile sexual imagery. Both Kafka and Joseph K. became idiots of id, desperate to try out every imaginable sexual act—anal, oral, you name it—with every woman who sauntered past. Watching it was like being trapped at a really gross Eurotrash orgy. There were also four Kafka doppelgängers wandering about the stage; at one point I thought they were about to get it on with each other, which might at least have brought us closer to Kafka’s real sexual issues. Johnny van Hal soldiered bravely through the unsympathetic title role(s), but the standout in the cast was Gisela Stille, lending a warm, rich soprano to Felice.
The première took place at the Royal Danish Theatre’s new opera house, on an island in the Copenhagen harbor. It is a sleek, cool, thoroughly Danish building, with bulbous glass walls and a severe overhanging roof. The acoustics are vivid, though lacking in focus and bass. From the look of things, the management wants opera to be racy, hip, not too deep. Coming next season is a world première by Elvis Costello.
At the beginning of the month, the Houston Grand Opera gave the first performance of Mark Adamo’s “Lysistrata.” Like “Kafka’s Trial,” it is an opera based on a familiar literary source, in this case the comedy by Aristophanes. And, as in the Ruders opera, a certain amount of creative violence is done to the original. Adamo wrote his own libretto, and he shows little interest in the political issues that have made “Lysistrata” a favorite of left-leaning theatre companies since the invasion of Iraq. In Aristophanes, the women of Athens and Sparta go on strike against the men of the two belligerent city-states, demanding that their endless war end. The “sex strike” still happens in Adamo’s version, but it becomes the backdrop for the central drama of a relationship — the one between Lysia and the Athenian general Nico (a character that Adamo invented for the occasion). A brittle antiwar satire becomes a sumptuous love story, poised between comedy and heartbreak.
And it works. I can imagine a roomful of European progressives snarling at Adamo’s bourgeois sensibility, but I relaxed a minute after the music began, knowing that I was in the hands of a brilliant theatre composer. Adamo’s effortless expertise was on display in his 1998 maiden effort, “Little Women,” alongside spells of cutesiness and clumsiness. He still indulges in cloying gestures—enough with the jokes in the supertitles!—but he has taken several big leaps forward, particularly in integrating his proudly tonal melodies with more dissonant connective material. Adamo’s accompaniments would make a good primer for any young composer learning to write for and around singers. Each strand of the vocal line is punctuated by some perfect short gesture: cello pizzicatos and a smattering of harp; a four-note horn solo; a vaguely Balinese rustling of mallet percussion and string glissandos. The orchestral writing is often little more—or nothing less—than a play of light around the voices.
Act I is stocked with pratfalls and silliness. In Act II, the story takes a much more serious turn. Lovers on both sides fall into melancholy contemplation of the competing demands of private love and public life. The audience is invited to read “work” for “war” throughout. “Our will is not our will,” sings Nico. “I am not my own,” sings Lysia. Slow dotted rhythms, reminiscent of Britten in his ceremonial mode, give the music a sudden grandeur. As the cities work their way toward reconciliation, the women sing radiant, flowing chorales around the Greek word “Evoe!,” the exclamation of praise in the Bacchanalia. At the end, the gods descend to warn the humans of their folly: “Never will it end. Never will it end. Time to time, it may suspend, but never will it end.” The orchestra constructs a huge passacaglia based on intertwining downward scales, and the chorus gathers for one last chant of “Evoe!” It’s almost shocking how deep this seemingly lighthearted opera goes.
The Houston production was on the ugly side, with cartoonish sets colored orange and bright blue. But it didn’t sabotage the drama, as the Copenhagen production did. The singers were excellent: Victoria Livengood, Myrna Paris, Chad Shelton, and, especially, Emily Pulley, as Lysia, who mastered every nuance of the opera’s wide emotional range. Opening night was a bittersweet occasion, for it was the last Houston première presided over by David Gockley, the company’s visionary general director. Gockley has introduced thirty-three new works in about as many years, writing himself into musical history in the process: Adams’s “Nixon in China,” Meredith Monk’s “atlas,” and Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” came into being on his watch. Next year, he decamps to the San Francisco Opera. Too bad he isn’t moving to New York.