Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Two operas: Orphée; Nixon in China

MY POSITION ON THE MUSIC of Philip Glass is odd: when I'm not actively hearing it I tend to reject interest in it on grounds of principle; when I am actively hearing it I find it almost always beautiful, often compelling, sometimes memorable. (Those last two words aren't meant to diminish the music: memorability is, to me, these days, a very rare commodity.)

Simply thinking about the Violin Concerto, for example, which I haven't heard in years, I fault it for repetitiousness, blandness, and a curious fault I'll simply call, for the moment, of-interest-only-for-itself, nonextensibility. It's not as bad as what I think of as the music of Arvo Pärt or the recent Witold Górecki, but it's in that direction. But then quickly I recall the physical effect of actually hearing the Philip Glass Violin Concerto, whether live or via recording, and I remember the overwhelming feeling of happiness I had in the event, the curious attentiveness to its sounds and procedures.

"Curious" attentiveness, because one's at the same moment in a sort of mesmerized state, floating along in complete acceptance of only the sensory impressions provided by the hearing, yet one's aware of each detail, the attack, swell, release of each note, the interplay between solo and background, the grain of the piece.

I've met Glass on a few occasions, once or twice to interview him, and always found him immensely likable. Attractive, informed, intelligent, and receptive; very much aware of his own importance (given the context of the meeting, which after all was a conversation directed to himself and his work), yet interested also in others. He has never impressed me as a man or a composer abnormally fixated on ego.

I've seen, let's see, three or four of his operas: Einstein on the Beach twice — I remember John Cage sitting behind me at one performance — Satyagraha; a reduced but very effective version of Akhnaten; The Photographer; perhaps another somewhere along the way. They were all quite different from one another, putting the lie to the canard that all Glass is interchangeable. (People do fixate on what he refers to, in his book Music by Philip Glass, as the "highly logical arithmetic system I later began to call 'additive process,' a cornerstone technique that has served me well…" (op. cit., p. 8)).

Yesterday I extended the run by one: the Ensemble Parallèle was presenting Glass's opera Orphée (1993) in San Francisco, and at nearly the last minute we decided to go. This isn't that easy a decision: lower-priced (I will not say "cheap") sections were sold out, so we spent nearly $130 for our dress circle seats; and then there's the drive down and back, 130 miles (funny the duplicated number) and six bucks bridge toll; and of course the six hours or so out of one's diminishing stock of time. But an opera unseen is an opportunity not to miss, with certain exceptions (anything by Wagner, for example): and my grandson has been raving about Orphée, and I'd never even heard a recording.

I'd been warned away from the opera, when it was first composed, by negative reviews, of all things. They are indeed insidious, negative reviews, affecting even a seasoned [retired] reviewer like me. As I [call] recall they focussed on the exceptional conception of the opera: Glass worked not from a conventionally written libretto but from the soundtrack of a film, Jean Cocteau's 1950 Orphée. My memory of the Jean Cocteau film is blurred by the passage of, let's see, probably half a century. Black-and-white; motorcycles; Jean Marais. Surrealist, or striving for. Stilted, a bit.

The film itself has many detractors. (Here's one, which I link to for two reasons: an excellent example of bashing-masquerading-as-criticism; also a reasonably accurate job of reporting the content.) Most of those I've encountered make the same mistake, reacting against Cocteau's film as not being what they think it ought, or in come some cases was intended, to be. And, of course, there's the usual Anglo-Germano-American prejudice against that part of the French sensibility that I find pensive, subtle, fond, or tender; which France-detractors dislike as wooden, vapid, silly, or weak.

Philip Glass began his career in Paris. I think of him, the day after seeing Orphée, as essentially a French composer; certainly, if an American one, French-trained. He studied, after all, with both Nadia Boulanger and Darius Milhaud. Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud were as important early impressions on him as were Brecht or Beckett, and film and live theater as important, apparently, as music.

SEEING ORPHEE YESTERDAY in San Francisco's Herbst Theater I was struck first of all by two things: the enterprise with which the production transferred the implications of Cocteau's screenplay from the movie screen to the stage, and the serene beauty of the score. The opera opens in a Paris café, staged in this production outside the proscenium, the orchestra at stage level, to music dominated by ragtime piano; soon afterward the orchestra, playing all the time, descends noiselessly to pit level while the action is transferred to the stage. Visually and aurally, it's as if the audience is being drawn into the action, through the looking-glass the scrim curtain had constituted: and the score smoothly moves from café-music to the opera house, with references — I swear I heard them — to Gluck's classical setting of the Orpheus myth.

From then on, the score underlies, supports, propels the narrative. As Cocteau does not merely adapt or re-present the familiar Greek myth — Monteverdi and Gluck have satisfied that operatic imperative for all time, I think — but instead poetically transforms it to reveal the mythic component of the Eternals of love, death, and poetry as they stand in our own time, so Glass transforms the sensibility of Gluck's classical score, through his "additive process," to connect to our more motor-needy time. The ancient Greeks did not differentiate "composer" and "poet," to be one was to be the other. (This is why the Orpheus legend is uniquely foundational to opera, which itself, at best, makes no such distinction.)

Glass even refers to Gluck in his orchestration: the empty treble of the flute contrasts with the darkly complex trombone and bassoon, and the harp, perhaps consciously representing Orpheus's lyre, plays nearly throughout Orphée. His French prosody seems to me right on the mark. I heard complaints, after the performance, that the opera lacks tunes; I thought it very lyrical, Cocteau's sometimes inconsequential-seeming lines often brought out with just the right degree of irony or pithiness to reveal his poetics of the everyday — a Surrealist thumbprint.

I've only seen one other production of Ensemble parallèle, the premiere of the "final version" of Lou Harrison's Young Caesar (2007). It was effective, but virtually unstaged, produced in concert form. This was a tremendous advance on that production, transforming Herbst Theater into what really seemed an opera house. Brian Staufenbiel's direction mediated nicely between the Cocteau film and the Herbst stage, among Dave Dunning's resourceful set, dramatically lit by Matthew Antaky.

Nicole Paiement conducted with great attention and energy, getting a lot out of the fourteen-piece ensemble and ably cuing the singers. Marnie Breckenridge was a superb (Death) Princess; Eugene Brancoveaunu rather a bland Orphée. John Duykers made an interesting chauffeur Heurtebise; Thomas Glenn an attractive Cégeste; Philip Skinner an imposing Judge; Susannah Biller a retiring, timid Eurydice.

These principals, the lesser roles, even the mute circus artists brought in to replace the menacing motorcyclists who harvest for Death in the original film, all took their parts in perfect relation to one another and to the Cocteau-Glass opera, I thought. There was something almost literary about the effect, so well did it enter the mind, develop, and broaden. Glass's music is certainly the sustenance of the entire thing: but musical interpretation and theatrical production were detailed, evocative, and beautifully balanced, leaving memories that continue to deepen in meaning.

IF PHILIP GLASS'S SENSIBILITY nearly always strikes me as French-oriented, John Adams's looks sideways toward Germany. One of his early orchestral successes was called Harmonielehre: neither Schoenberg nor Wagner is ever really far from his orientation as composer. The Death of Klinghoffer makes me think, don't ask me why, of Parsifal; A Flowering Tree, Die Entführing aus dem Serail; Doctor Atomic, a mature Lohengrin.

A couple of weeks ago we watched the delayed in-theater "simulcast" of the Metropolitan Opera's long-delayed production of Adams's first opera, Nixon in China. The opera impressed me tremendously when I saw its premiere in Houston, nearly 24 years ago, especially for the humane, sympathetic, poignant view it develops of the Nixons, Mao, and Chou En-lai.

You could argue that the creative team of Nixon in China — Adams, librettist Alice Goodman, and producer Peter Sellars — do, in their opera, for the factual event of Nixon's visit to China in 1972, what Cocteau did for the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. They revisit the original events, studying closely the factual record, the personalities and mannerisms of the principals, and simultaneously recount the story while revealing deeper insights, freely allowing specific depiction to engender broader allusive meaning.

This has caused a certain amount of complaint, of course. Last month Max Frankel, formerly executive editor of the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece in that newspaper, warning
that when living reality is so blatantly harnessed to bait the audience with familiarity and to create a heightened sense of excitement, it risks being constrained by that same reality from reaching true depths of drama and character.
That may be true in general, but I think Nixon in China achieves those depths: perhaps precisely because, unlike Frankel, I am not distracted from the poetic and philosophical achievement of the opera by the literal and realpolitical specificities of the events that inspired it. Frankel seems to complain (and others have too) that only the first act is really about real events, that "Act II catapults from the real to the surreal," then "takes a final turn, in Act III, to the psychological." But this is precisely the genius of the opera: it lifts the audience from an engaging, often bantering, anecdotal presentation of the Nixon visit, ending with the round of toasts at the welcoming banquet, to the retrospective, greatly broadened contemplation of large issues in the third-act nocturne, anchored though it is occasionally by Nixon's recollections of mundane hamburger-turning on a Pacific island during WWII, or the Maos' aging fox-trot that hauntingly underscores the final minutes.

(There is of course the matter of the big second-act ballet, the lynchpin of the opera, where Mark Morris's choreography draws Kissinger and Pat Nixon into a portrayal of the Chinese ballet The Red Detachment of Women — another example in this opera of one event, or work, engendering another. Watching the Met's performance made me think of Holden Caulfield's complaint, in The Catcher in the Rye, about the acting style of Lunt and Fontanne: very good, but too good, virtuosity distracting one's attention from the event.)

Where Glass seems drawn to individual expressive poetics, narrowing the focus from Greek myth to an individual poet's anguish, the Nixon team responds to a transcendental meditation on the generalized human condition, as revealed through individual stories. Surely no two couples could have been more different than the Nixons and the Maos: but the third act of Nixon in China exists precisely to contradict this.

Neither composer reaches for the kind of operatic tunefulness of Verdi and Puccini, of course. But where Glass seems to ground his score on a French tradition, the French baroque opera never far from his declamation even though he begins with café-style ragtime, Adams looks back to the American big-band sound for his score, though the third act fox-trot reminds me of Hindemith's and Stravinsky's view of "jazz" more than that of, say, Jimmy Lunceford. (Glass scores for a fifteen-piece ensemble, though he allows for multiple strings. Adams requires a bigger orchestra: 2-2-3-0, 4 saxophones 0-3-3-0, percussion, two keyboards, 6-6-4-4-4.) And where the vocal lines in Orphée are chiefly quiet, a kind of lyric sung recitative, those of Nixon in China are frequently urgent and declamatory.

The passage of time enhances memories of past performances, and I thought the Metropolitan cast a level below the Houston one — except for the Nixons. James Maddalena sang the title role in both productions; if anything, he's deepened in the interval; his portrayal was completely satisfying. And Janis Kelly was as sympathetic, occasionally funny, finally rather moving as Carolann Page had been in Houston: it's a difficult role dramatically, a rewarding one musically.

Otherwise I thought there were problems with the casting. Russell Braun was not as deep or convincing a Chou as Sanford Sylvan had been; Robert Brubaker by no means as persuasive a Mao as John Duykers; Richard Paul Fink less subtly malevolent a Kissinger as was Thomas Hammons. Kathleen Kim did a fine job of the shrewish Chiang Ch'ing, "Madame Mao," though; and the three "Maoettes," Ginger Costa-Jackson, Teresa S. Herold, and Tamara Mumford, did well as sinister backups to their boss.

The orchestra sounded fine, and Adams conducted a more expansive performance than I recall having heard in Houston, where John DeMain presided. I thought the staged production suffered quite a bit from the film-projected-into-theater format. There are so many problems with the concept it's hard to know where to start, but let's begin with the sound source: it's all over the place. I'm used to the orchestral sound being in the pit, the vocal sound on the stage; here, everything was everywhere, and the aural scale was off.

Then there's the close-ups. You can imagine how many problems they occasion. The cinematic direction was pretty good, I'm sure, but I'm used to steering my own eyes around the stage, not having them guided by someone else.

Worst of all, I thought, were the intermission features. Thomas Hampson, I think it was, interviewed a number of the singers, Adams, and Peter Sellars. Questions veered from inane to inconsequential and were largely a waste of time. Particularly Adams's time: he was interviewed just before going to the pit to begin the third act; when we last saw him he was looking around for a place to set his hand-held microphone down on his way to work.

Still, Nixon in China has moved to the Metropolitan Opera. One of the intermission questions had to do with its place in the repertory: Janis Kelly was sure it belonged. Adams is one of the great opera composers of the Twentieth Century, she said, up there with Berg and Strauss. I'm sure I don't know: only history will be able to make that judgement. I do think it a fine, strong, ultimately moving work of art. We'll know more about its historical position when it's moved away from Peter Sellars, I think, not that I have anything but profound respect for his intelligence and humanity in this production.
Philip Glass: Orphée, chamber opera in two acts for ensemble and soloists, 1993.
  recording: Ann Manson, Portland Opera (Orange Mountain; UPC 801837006827)
Philip Glass: Music by Philip Glass (New York: Harper & Row, 1987)
Jean Cocteau: Orphée (Andre Paulve Film and Films du Palais Royal, 1950; The Criterion Collection, 2000 [DVD]

John Adams: Nixon in China, opera in three acts
  recordings: Original cast; Edo de Waart, Orchestra of St. Luke's (Elektra);
    Orth, Kanyova, Hammons, Heller, Opera Colorado Chorus, Colorado Symphony, Alsop (Naxos)
John Adams: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

5 comments:

John Whiting said...

I'm unable to comment on the Nixon in China interval features -- I left at the first opportunity. The opera is largely a series of intimate dialogs and the total incompatibility between the close-up photography and the distant ambiance of the vocal sound was so upsetting I couldn't bear it. There is absolutely no excuse for not radio miking the singers as the ENO in London did.

When I got home and listened to the BBC transmission, which I'd recorded, the voices were equally off in the middle distance. The Met sound engineers are still buried back somewhere in the 30s when they first started their radio b/cs.

Charles Shere said...

John Whiting is a sound engineer, and knows what he's talking about. John Adams, as I understand it, requires body mikes on his performers in Nixon in China.

The whole question of thrown-off acoustical perspectives, resulting from selective amplification in this case, is extremely interesting. We old-timers are perhaps uniquely affected by this; those who grew up in the headphone era (not to mention the earbud era) may well be unaffected — or unaware of the effects. I think it's one more contributor, along with the internal-combustion engine, the back-beat, and the wearing of baseball caps, to the near-universal madness of our times.

Curtis Faville said...

"Near universal madness"!

Well, my goodness!

I've never worn a baseball cap, preferring instead, from about age 40 onwards, to dry my hair with a professional hair dryer, and "style" it after a fashion--which, I believe, has saved me now almost two decades of "bad hair" in public. I haven't seen a professional barber in at least 15 years, and am, I'm sure, the better for it. And a lot richer!--given what they charge nowadays.

I've only heard one Philip Glass performance live. It was the music for a ballet at Zellerbach about 20 years ago. A very dramatic sweeping choreography, albeit a bit repetitive, like Glass's music. A lot of weird swinging, sawing in the strings, as if he couldn't think of anything better to do to stir up some physical prompting for the dancers. There was something "compelling" about it, but it certainly lacked variation and color. Perhaps it was grey?

sfmike said...

These are great essays.

I went to the San Francisco Opera telecast of "Madama Butterfly" at a movie theatre, because I was a supernumerary in the production and wanted to see it from the house, but the sound was unspeakable, especially after I'd heard it live where it was exquisite.

Had the great opportunity to be an extra in the "Orphee" production you saw as one of the underworld circus people, and your kind review gets it just right. Thanks.

Oh, and that Dan Schneider Cocteau bashing link was really (unintentionally) funny.

Charles Shere said...

Thanks. I have a Lot Of Respect for you supers; thanks very much for all you contribute.