May 5, 2012

Great music, bad operas...


Watching an opera whose plot does not involve sex or murder (preferably both, in either order) is like attending a Hollywood party whose favors do not include cocaine:  there are vastly more rewarding ways to spend one's time.  Despite the nearly tautological certainty of this wisdom,  there is a small but distinguished group of composers whose neglect of the dramatic requirements of opera as an art form seems to border on the delusional.  From Beethoven's Fidelio to Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Janacek's House of the Dead, and Dallapiccola's Il Prigionero, these are operas in which the characters do little more than deliver impassioned pronouncements on lofty topics, as if the principal business of opera is to serve as a musically enhanced vehicle for grandiose messages on timeless metaphysical, theological, or socio-political issues.  To paraphrase one of Samuel Goldwyn's immortal quips:  Messages are for Western Union.  Operas are for entertainment.

A few days ago I added Elliott Carter's 40-minute long opera What Next? to the above list of operatic misfires which I remember primarily for their disappointing mismatch between glorious music and stillborn libretti.  Of course I knew the music of Carter's opera for a long time, courtesy of my local library's copy of the recording conducted by Peter Eotovos (ECM label).  Because the library CD was missing its booklet with the libretto, I could only infer from the occasional snippets of decipherable English that there wasn't much going on in that opera dramatically speaking.  But the music -- by turns dramatic,virile, angular, playful, and poignantly lyrical -- was so magical that when I finally obtained a superlatively performed video recording of a fully staged performance conducted by James Levine at the 2006 Tanglewood Festival, and with English subtitles to boot, I just couldn't wait to experience the opera of which this unforgettable music was a part. 
     
Talk about disappointment...  Paul Griffiths' libretto -- an awkward mix of disconnected pseudo-existentialist musings, shrunk to the length and depth of cartoon captions in the New Yorker magazine, and delivered by one-dimensional characters who have absolutely nothing else to do -- is simply embarrassing; doubly so for a man previously known to me as a thoughtful music critic and a perceptive writer on 20th century music.  The experience of hearing Carter's magnificent music as an accompaniment to such shallow Dadaist proceedings on the stage left me with feelings of frustration and disappointment almost as acute as those one would have after visiting an upscale massage parlor where an impossibly gorgeous girl spent the entire hour summarizing for you the main points of Locke's Treatises of Government... 

3 comments:

laybl said...

Cultural mismatches are nothing new.If anything, they proliferate for reasons unclear to me. Surely, at some point,a participant actually reads the libretto, responding with a booming "WTF!!!"
Years ago, a friend worked for Ming Cho Lee, a brilliant set designer, who managed to associate himself with a few ill-conceived shows. Foremost among them was "Here's Where I Belong", a breathtakingly awful musical version of "East of Eden. Lee's setts could not bring sense or life to the fiasco. I recall a critic writing about the audience leaving the theater whistling the sets.

Sic semper buffoons.

Christopher Culver said...

Have you heard Tan Dun's opera "Marco Polo"? Another production betrayed by a Paul Griffiths libretto. Why do composers trust this man?

Boom said...

Christopher Culver said...

>> Why do composers trust this man?

I suppose because Griffiths has a well-deserved reputation as a writer on contemporary music, and because he is a very smart man in general. Neither of which, however, is a guarantee of talent for dramatic arts...