Opera, opera, opera

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  August 15, 2006

Some memorable events took place at Tanglewood before I left for Santa Fe. The highlight of the all-day Tanglewood on Parade was a performance at Ozawa Hall of Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”), his dazzling theater piece from 1918, with a student conductor leading an expert student ensemble. The speakers — Narrator, Soldier, and Devil — were read by three celebrated composers: John Harbison (67), Elliott Carter (97), and Milton Babbitt (90), with the text updated (mainly by Harbison) to include comical local and personal references (like a jibe at Babbitt’s “dodecaphonic hexachords”). At one point Carter either lost his place or Babbitt fed him the wrong cue: “Give me your fiddle!” But after an anxious pause, Carter brought the house down (including James Levine and his mother) with his resounding “NO!” These young musicians probably needn’t ever again worry about being upstaged.

That night in the Shed, the Boston Pops was led by Keith Lockhart (Duke Ellington’s Harlem) and John Williams (his suite from JFK), Stefan Asbury led the TMC Orchestra in Bernstein’s On the Waterfront Suite, and Williams combined the BSO and the TMC Orchestra for a rip-roaring 1812 Overture. But the unqualified hit was George Gershwin’s irrepressible Cuban Overture, delivered in high style by Levine.

The Festival of Contemporary Music opened with a triple bill of one-act operas staged by Doug Fitch, an old Peter Sellars associate who’s been working in New York and Santa Fe. Halfway through Hin und zurück (“There and Back”), Hindemith’s absurdist 1927 miniature, the husband shoots his unfaithful wife; then, like a movie, the piece reverses direction and ends happily at the beginning. Legendary soprano Phyllis Curtin, in a “mute” role, sneezed open the opera with a vigorous “Ha-choo!” and closed it with an even more hilarious “Choo-hah!” Stravinsky’s Mavra followed — his seldom-heard folk comedy about a soldier disguised as a maid to get into his girlfriend’s house.

Then Elliott Carter’s only opera, What Next? (1999), got its American stage premiere. This hallucinatory tragi-comedy deals with the aftermath of an auto accident involving a group of people who may or may not be on their way to a wedding and may or may not be still alive (the latter a widely held interpretation denied by librettist Paul Griffith). Like much of Carter’s non-vocal music, it’s full of complex ensembles inspired by classic opera (the sextet from Lucia, Mozart’s multiple orchestras in the banquet scene of Don Giovanni, the finale of Verdi’s Falstaff). Levine conducted the Carter with impeccable timing (like the suspenseful pauses during the opening car crash), color, and rhythmic variety. Carter’s “tranquil” Nocturne was mesmerizingly atmospheric.

Fitch’s staging and cartoon-like designs (including a floating cloud in each opera, and someone carrying a speeding bullet across the stage) were appealing and imaginative, and some of the student singers (especially in the Carter) were exceptional. But diction was on a low level, and since English is one of the harder languages to sing and there were no titles, it was frustrating not to hear most of the words. What’s the point of opera in unintelligible English?

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