by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 21, 2006.
July was New American Opera Month in the purple hills of upstate New York and western Massachusetts. You could hardly drive your Smart car from the lesbian bed-and-breakfast to the organic farm stand without running over an adaptation of a literary property. Stephen Hartke’s “The Greater Good” made its début at the Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown. The Lake George Opera, in Saratoga Springs, presented Ned Rorem’s “Our Town,” which had its première in Indiana earlier this year. Elliott Carter’s opera “What Next?” (1999) belatedly had its first American staging, at Tanglewood. Back in New York, Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel” was the centerpiece of the Lincoln Center Festival, in a Julie Taymor extravaganza. These performances, all well attended, came at the end of a musical season that brought John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic” to the San Francisco Opera, Tobias Picker’s “An American Tragedy” to the Met, and Lowell Liebermann’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” to Juilliard.
Are any of these new operas towering masterworks that will alter the course of music history while winning the hearts of millions? People have been asking that loaded question of American opera for a hundred years, and the way they phrase it almost demands a negative answer. Better to ask whether a new work is strong enough to hold the stage. If it does, it has a future, and the masterpiece-sorting can be done by later generations. “The Greater Good,” “Our Town,” and “Grendel” passed this test: lustily, wistfully, and by a hair.
Hartke’s “The Greater Good” is a tightly constructed, vividly imagined piece that may mark the emergence of a major opera composer. The excellent libretto, by Philip Littell, is based on Maupassant’s story “Boule de Suif,” which tells of the misadventures of a menagerie of bourgeois and aristocratic types who are travelling by coach in the middle of the Franco-Prussian War. A Prussian commandant stops the coach and lets them know that they can proceed only if Boule de Suif, a bighearted, big-boned prostitute who is on board, services his needs. She patriotically refuses. The others play elaborate psychological games to make her give in. They are greater whores than she. The challenge of this scathing little tale is that not a lot actually happens. Hartke seizes control with a subtle riot of sprung rhythms, colliding tunes, jazzy rave-ups, onomatopoeia (cat lovers will want a forthcoming Naxos recording if only for the Comtesse de Breville’s mewling, chirruping aria, “I miss my cat”), musical in-jokes (listen for the would-be-transcendent “Rosenkavalier” trio that never gets off the ground), and, at the end, a delicately shattering anthem of despair. Hartke is celebrated for his orchestral music, which mixes Stravinskyan neoclassicism, minimalism, jazz, and Balinese gamelan. The dazzle of his orchestration was no surprise; the sizzle of his theatre sense was big news.
The melancholy Americana of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” has long fascinated American composers. Aaron Copland, who wrote music for the 1940 film adaptation, wanted to make an opera out of it, but Wilder did not coöperate. Ned Rorem, who has written only one other evening-length opera in his eighty-two years, eventually received permission from the playwright’s estate. The drama plays to his strengths. Its mundane scenes of all-American life—baseball, drunkenness, gossip, marriage—elicit from Rorem the clean-lined, crisp-figured style that typified American music before the Cold War, and to which he has stayed uncompromisingly true. The unsettling transformation of the third act, in which we see the world through the eyes of the dead, makes him go deeper; at times, the music becomes uncharacteristically turbulent and grand. (Rorem has always prided himself on his Francophile restraint.) Wilder’s ghosts remind us that we never appreciate the transient glories of daily existence until it is too late. The very fabric of the score—its luminous orchestration, its pearly vocal lines, its gently pulsing rhythms, its celestially circling song of young love—evokes the mundane beauty that we overlook.
J. D. McClatchy, who sleekly adapted “Our Town” for Rorem, is the librettist of the moment; somehow, he also found time to write “Miss Lonelyhearts” for Liebermann (unfortunately, not a success), and to collaborate with Taymor on “Grendel.” The original source for the latter is John Gardner’s sardonic, poetic 1971 novel, a postmodern masterpiece in which the monster whom Beowulf slew strikes back with a tell-all memoir. The New York State Theatre was packed with spectators who were eager to see what new wonders Taymor had wrought, and they were not cheated: her staging included a decadent, stage-spanning Dragon, figures dancing in midair in strobe light, decomposing puppet beasts and beastly machines, and comically preening heroes who appeared to have studied the production numbers in “Showgirls” for choreographic inspiration. Goldenthal kept pace with the images, deploying a meta-Wagnerian, bass-heavy orchestration, semi-improvised episodes with a hard-rock tinge, thumping bacchanalia in the manner of Carl Orff, and spells of post-minimalist lyricism along the lines of recent John Adams. The trouble was that he merely kept pace; the score followed the action rather than drove it. Still, it had a certain mythic weight, and the show was a wow.
Glimmerglass, Lake George, and the Lincoln Center Festival all fielded mostly young, mostly unknown casts for their productions, proving that celebrity singers aren’t needed to attract audiences to new opera. True, Denyce Graves played the Dragon in “Grendel” (in woefully ragged voice), but the main attraction was the little-known but very fast-rising bass Eric Owens, in the title role. His hefty, tonally focussed, richly colored voice cut through the tumult of Goldenthal’s score, and his vital, naturalistic acting gave heart to a high-tech spectacle. Steven Sloane authoritatively marshalled the orchestra. In “Our Town,” which was directed by Nelson Sheeley and conducted by Mark Flint, the vocal standout was Sarah Paige Hagstrom, passionately engaged as Emily. At Glimmerglass, where David Schweizer put together a sharply humorous staging of “The Greater Good” and Stewart Robertson led a spot-on orchestral performance, Caroline Worra created a radiant and heartbreaking Boule de Suif.
At the Tanglewood festival, everyone was dumbstruck by the work ethic of James Levine. Sidelined in the spring with a rotator-cuff injury, the grand Pooh-Bah of the Met and the Boston Symphony has shed several dozen pounds and, if possible, seems more unstoppably dynamic than before. One weekend, he conducted three different all-Mozart programs, including all of “Don Giovanni.” Another weekend, he led, on consecutive nights, Schoenberg’s “Gurre-Lieder” and Strauss’s “Elektra,” which require orchestras of a hundred and forty and a hundred and fifteen players, respectively. I caught Levine’s last Tanglewood feat of the summer, in which he dissolved the difficulties of Carter’s “What Next?” The piece appeared on a program of short operas, alongside Hindemith’s “There and Back” and Stravinsky’s “Mavra.” The director Doug Fitch deftly tied the three works together with Dali-meets-Warhol imagery. The singers were Tanglewood students; the gleaming soprano voices of Chanel Marie Wood and Kiera Duffy, and the commanding contralto of Christin-Marie Hill, stood out.
“What Next?” is an anti-opera that pointedly avoids conventional narrative. Paul Griffiths’s libretto describes, in knotty, jokey, Samuel Beckett-like style, the aftermath of a highway accident. The characters may or may not be dead, and are trying to figure out what world they belong to. Carter’s hyper-complex musical language is fit for the subject, effortlessly summoning a hectic, rush-hour atmosphere. The various characters are assigned governing intervals—perfect fifths, minor and major seconds, tritones, and so on—and if two notes are insufficient to define a personality, that may be the point; at the border of death, the precious illusion of individuality disintegrates. This is the same disenchanting wisdom that Rorem imparts in the final act of “Our Town.” The overlap is ironic, because, for fifty years, Rorem and Carter have been considered polar opposites in American music, the one defending tonality and the other rejecting it. In their late operas, they are seeing humanity with almost the same eyes, as a frantic dance to a misheard tune.