AUFBAU 65:23 November 12, 1999 p.14
CULTURE & ARTS
Opera Series Opens at Miller Theater
"Houdini the Great" - A Chamber Opera
352 words by Leonard Lehrman
Miller Theatre's three-part chamber opera series began on Halloween weekend with the U.S. premiere of Houdini the Great_ by Hollywood- born, Danish-trained Andy Pape (b. 1955) on a libretto by Erik Clausen, performed by Den Anden Opera of Denmark.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926) was a Jewish immigrant, originally named Ehrich Weiss, who transformed himself into the greatest escape artist of all time. Like Emma Goldman, he figures in E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, was cut from the movie, and reinstated (though less convincingly than she) in the current musical on Broadway.
In the opera, he is portrayed as having had an Italian background, though in reality he was no more Italian than Chico Marx. Nonetheless, Pape and Clausen give the title character (tenor Jan Lund) and his mother (contralto Edith Guillaume) long stretches of Italianate nonsense --though the opera is as a whole sung and spoken in (sort of) English-- in which to spout their love and attachment for each other.
This interferes a bit with Houdini's relationship to his wife, another immigrant, whom the authors name "Kowalski" (soprano Lise-Lotte Nielsen), who had been rescued by him from persecution by a policeman called Law'n'Order (baritone Jorgen Ole Borch). Eventually the baritone and the soprano make off with each other, as Houdini's last escape effort fails, and he drowns in New York harbor. His ghost coming back to haunt everybody made this somewhat silly work at least appropriate for Halloween.
All four of the singers, while staying more or less in character, also served narrative functions, as an actor held up signs for applause, booing, intermission, and so forth. Henrik Vagn Christensen conducted the frequently metrically-challenging music (lots of quintuple and septuple meters here) performed by an ensemble of five, including trumpet, accordion, two guitars and percussion. Commissioned originally by guitarist Jesper Luetzhoft, the work is credited with having started "a veritable opera boom among Danish composers."
One expects the other chamber operas in the series, Peter Maxwell Davies's Juggler of Notre Dame in February and John Eaton's Don Quixote in May, will be more serious in nature.
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