"Love Has A Bitter Core"
Recent Operas in Revival & Premiere
(c) by Leonard Lehrman, Jan. 23, 2010
New Music Connoisseur, Fall/Winter 2012, v. 18 #1, p. 13
Listening today to the Met rebroadcast of the Feb. 1, 1958 matinee of Vanessa by Samuel Barber, honoring his centennial this year, one can't help remembering what a gorgeous piece that was, written for the singers who premiered it, whose vocalism could be emulated but never eclipsed in subsequent revivals. "Outside this house, the world has changed; life is faster than before," sang Nicolai Gedda, changing the word "swifter" (on the recording) to "faster." I remember folks saying how ironic it was that Gedda, the only non-native English speaker, was the only one whose every word could be understood. "Love has a bitter core," the main theme of the canonic ensemble, could be applied to all the works reviewed in this column. "Must the winter come so soon," the very first aria, written for Rosalind Elias, is also the finest; it became a kind of theme song for her (quoted, among other places, in an opera I wrote that she staged at Lake George 30 years later). I also remember my conducting teacher Tibor Kozma saying, nastily, that Gian-Carlo Menotti's greatest contribution to American opera was writing this work's libretto and then not setting it himself, letting his partner Sam Barber write the music - some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote. Then again, one could take issue with even calling the work an "American opera," as there is not one note in it that brands it distinctly American, as opposed to European. But as I tried to make clear in my last column, as non-Europeans are gradually becoming a demographic majority in the U.S., it would be a mistake to discount the valuable part of our culture that is in fact European.
Much American music, from Copland to Blitzstein to Thomson to Siegmeister to Piston and so forth, is in fact descended from the French tradition, via Nadia Boulanger, whose teacher was Gabriel Fauré. It was a rare treat to enjoy his sumptuous 1912 opera Pénélope well sung, for the most part, in the original French at Manhattan School of Music's student production Dec. 9, 11 & 12, 2009. Soprano Lori Guilbeau vocally filled out the title role nicely, with tenor Cooper Nolan as Ulysse leading an able supporting cast, all well-paced by conductor Laurent Pillot. The piece is full of langorous longeurs, but to these ears at least deserves as much credit for atmosphere as Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande which preceded it by a decade or two. Regrettable perhaps, though hardly avoidable, in this time of controversy over the conduct of war, was the opera's, and the story's, bloodthirsty ending, in which all the suitors are ruthlessly and triumphantly slaughtered. (For a happier, more American, ending to the Odyssey story, see John Latouche's & Jerome Moross's treatment of it in their masterpiece, The Golden Apple!)
Slaughter is also the theme that inevitably haunts the conscience of the title character in Esther, Charles Kondek's masterful libretto for Hugo Weisgall's second or third-best opera (after Six Characters in Search of an Author, which I know and love, or Nine Rivers from Jordan, which I've only heard about), written for Lauren Flanigan back in 1993, and revived by New York City Opera with her (no longer exactly 17, but still radiant) in the title role, in sold-out performances this past November. Except the librettist cleverly begins and ends the opera in the graveyard, as the heroine's conscience struggles to come to terms with the situation she found herself in that led to the death not only of the villainous Haman and his wife but of their ten sons as well. Weisgall's music has been criticised as unmelodic. It's not; it's just not harmonic, in a traditional sense. His determined atonality has inspired successors from Harold Blumenfeld to Bruce Saylor to Edward Smaldone, none of whose original music you're likely to go out humming, but whose structural integrity and dramatic effect are always worthy of respect.
There have been many treatments of the Purim story, from Racine's to Milhaud's to Donald Sosin's, the latter sporting as its most memorable line: "Mordecai grew up in Shushan, where he was a little Shushan boy." This latest staging managed to add a bit of sensuality by including a few top-free ladies in the toilette scene, perhaps to compensate in part for not following the stage directions that specify Queen Vashti's expressively baring her breasts at one point. I recall a Dresden Yiddish troupe performing Itzak Manger's version of the story, exulting in the chant "Vashti muß nackt auf der Bühne stehn!" Not with opera singers in today's climate, no; ain't gonna happen.
Well, maybe in a small theater, with students, as productions of works like Hair get revived all over the place. But at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Dec. 29 & 30, all the mermaids were overclothed in the After Dinner Opera Company's sold-out premiere production of The Day Boy and the Night Girl by soprano Geraldine Farrar's granddaughter Jordan Wentworth Farrar, who also conducted the small instrumental ensemble in the pit. The company deserves credit for "keeping on," these 60 years, and there were some inspiring moments, musically, but mostly the composer had written as though all sopranos had the range and stamina of her grandmother, and these days, especially with student casts - here drawn largely from artistic director Louisa Jonason's classes (and some gifted alumni) at Mercyhurst College - such demands are just a bit beyond what could be expected to be their capacities. The audience seemed to love them, though. So keep on keepin' on, ADOCO.
Leonard Lehrman, composer of 196 works to date, including 10 operas and over 400 individual vocal pieces, is the author of Marc Blitzstein: A Bio-Bibliography (Praeger, 2005) and co-author of Elie Siegmeister, American Composer: A Bio-Bibliography (Scarecrow, 2010). Harvard B.A. '71, Cornell D.M.A. '77, he founded and directs the Metropolitan Philharmonic Chorus, having been Assistant Chorus Master at the Met 1977-78, Studienleiter & Kapellmeister at Theater des Westens in Berlin 1983-86, Associate Editor of Opera Monthly 1991-95, President of the Long Island Composers Alliance 1991-98, Editor of Opera Today 1999-2001, and Critic-at-Large of this publication since 2007. Website: ljlehrman.artists-in-residence.com