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Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York

Posted on: November 2nd, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

This afternoon I attended a performance of Nico Muhly’s opera, “Two Boys,” presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  There are a few more performances left in the run.  Anybody interested in seeing and hearing a new direction in opera for the 21st century who has not already gotten a ticket should move fast!

I’ve been a fan of Muhly since a profile by Alex Ross in The New Yorker brought him to my attention several years ago and led me to seek out recordings of his music.  (It is also worthy checking out his website/blog for an idea of what he is all about and to hear sound clips of his music.)  Muhly was recruited for the Met’s new initiative to commission American operas when he was 25 (he’s now 32), and his is the first of several commissioned operas to actually make it through the workshop and out-of-town tryout (English National Opera) and be presented on the big stage at Lincoln Center.  (Rufus Wainwright’s effort, rejected reportedly over his insistence of setting it in French, was presented by NY City Opera to moderate acclaim.  I enjoyed it without thinking it was great or even particularly distinctive.)

Muhly was teamed by the Met with writer Craig Lucas, author of numerous successful plays and screenplays and one Broadway-style musical.  Lucas is thirty years older than Muhly and an experienced man of the theater, and the Met powers-that-be thought such experience would be useful to a young composer setting off to write his first full-length opera.  By the end of the performance today, I was convinced that they made a mistake by not matching Muhly with somebody who has written several opera libretti.  Opera is distinctively different from all of the forms in which Lucas has worked, and I thought that the libretto was a weak point of this production.  But then again, it may be that Lucas’s fresh perspective helped to make this opera so distinctively different from most contemporary operas that I’ve heard.

The piece is through-composed with no stand-alone or attached arias.  Indeed, there is precious little song to this, just a few snippets here and there.  No tunes to go out humming.  This is a dark tale of deceit and murder involving the internet, and Muhly’s music is correspondingly grim throughout.  A few mild laughs — more like nervous laughs — from the audience in the second act were the only breaks to the gloom.  The piece was engrossing anyway.  The music functioned more like an excellent movie soundtrack, and the singing seemed to me somewhere between operatic recitative and the speech-song (Sprechtgesang) favored by Arnold Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire, his extended piece for singer and chamber ensemble where pitches are suggested as approximations and the singer is cautioned NOT TO SING!.  Muhly’s characters sing a bit, but not an awful lot.  On the other hand, what they do seems very well integrated into the plot.

But I found myself thinking toward the end that this might have been more effective as a theater piece with extensive music rather than an opera.  Performed in a theatrical house, not a huge opera house, and with perhaps more spoken dialogue to help the audience figure out what was going on.  (I read the synopsis in the program twice before coming to the Met, and still found myself befuddled at times, even with the English surtitles exhibited on the seatbacks.)

But befuddlement comes with the territory of this story, whose preoccupation is with the way that the internet facilitates anonymous and shifting identities among those who use it to carry out their social games.  The plot, said to derive from an actual incident, centers on a precocious 13-year-old who appropriates the names and identities of various members of his family to create multiple identities on-line, and then uses the various identities to seduce an older boy (16) into collaborating on the 13-year-old’s suicide, staged to appear as a murder.  There’s a plot-spoiler for you, but of course the plot is spelled out in the synopsis in the program book, but not with this degree of clarity.

The performance and production is extraordinary.  David Robertson is an excellent conductor of contemporary music, the Met Orchestra rises to the occasion, and director Bartlett Sher has created a production worth traveling to see.  The melding of moving sets, projections and other special effects work seamlessly to move the story forward and create an aura of suspense.  The Met chorus — standing in for a memorable depiction of the effect of internet chatrooms with simultaneous conversations going on – was also its excellent self.  Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as the police detective assigned to unravel the mystery of the stabbing of Jake is center stage most of the time and carries the burden with thrilling aplomb. Paul Appleby was also excellent as Brian, the older boy who is caught in the internet web.   The entire cast is strong and memorable, but I would give special kudos to Andrew Pulver, a boy soprano whose assumption of important parts of the role of Jake (otherwise sung at times, a bit confusingly in terms of the dramatic continuity, by Christopher Bolduc) was quite memorable.  He was asked to do more sophisticated acting than children usually have to do on the stage of the Met, and he did it quite well.

This is the kind of work that I think would benefit from a second or third exposure, and I hope the Met is going to stand behind its commissioning efforts by bringing the piece back for another run soon.  And I hope Muhly will continue to think about ways to improve it in the event of another run or a performance elsewhere when the Met’s exclusive rights expire, because I’m sure he will continue to find ways to strengthen the piece.  Nothing need be cast in stone.  (After all, Puccini substantially reworked Madama Butterfly after the initial production, and the version of Carmen we see today is different from what was presented at the Paris Opera for the premiere. . .)

NY Philharmonic’s Brilliant Beethoven 2nd Symphony

Posted on: April 12th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

I have quite an accumulation of concerts and theater events to blog about from the past several weeks, and I’ve been meaning to catch up with a cultural diary entry, but I couldn’t wait to write about tonight’s concert by the New York Philharmonic, so I’m jumping the line to do it while it is fresh in memory.

David Robertson, Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony, is this week’s guest conductor.  Tonight’s performance was the first of three performance of this program, with guest soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a distinguished exponent of 20th-21st century piano music.  Perhaps not so distinguished an exponent of 18th century piano music, however, to judge by his appearance on the first half of the program.

But I’ll begin with the high points of the evening – a brilliant recreation of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 36, a heartfelt and moving rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s early work, Les Offrandes oubliees (The Forgotten Offerings: Symphonic Meditation), written when the composer was just 22, and the U.S. premiere performance of Tristan Murail’s piano concerto, titled The Disenchantment of the World.  This concerto was jointly commissioned by several orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, and first publicly performed last summer, also with Mr. Aimard as soloist, in Dresden with a different conductor and orchestra.

It is difficult to respond at first hearing to a work like the Murail concerto.  It is in an unfamiliar idiom – the so-called spectral music originated in late-20th century France and taken up by many composers in varying degrees.  We’ve heard some of it in New York due to Magnus Lindberg’s extended residency for the first few years of Alan Gilbert’s direction of the orchestra.  But I find this style of composition difficult, not because of any particular intricacy but rather because of the lack of the familiar signposts of an extended piece of music.  This work takes almost half an hour but has no easily comprehended structure, no “tunes” as such, and no development in the style of the familiar repertory works of the classical and romantic periods, even of early-to-mid 20th century tonal modernism, such as Prokofiev or Shostakovich.  Instead, the focus is on sonic color and texture, with motifs of various lengths flung around but never quite developed, crashing chords in the piano, long held chords in the winds and strings, strident outbursts, occasional emergence of vehement rhythms.  There seems to be plenty of drama, but no coherent “story” at work.  At times, I was reminded of the second movement of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4 – but without the quoted patriotic and sentimental tunes, just the dissonance, the racket, the odd tunings (Ives went in for quarter-tones in his 4th Symphony, and Murail does something similar).  Everybody seemed to be strongly engaged on stage, but at times one wondered to what effect?  I found my attention wandering at times, but then something distinctive would emerge and draw me in again.  I certainly think it was worth hearing, and I strongly support the Philharmonic commissioning and performing new music.  The repertory must be refreshed with new works, and one can never know what will sink in and take root and earn repeated performances.  Perhaps this work will.  It is hard to say.

The Mozart – on this occasion, the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 – should not have been on the program.  I think the challenge of the long, difficult Murail concerto was more than enough to occupy Aimard’s attention, and it showed in the Mozart performance.  Aimard played without the printed music, and all was well for the first two movements, but things came apart in the Rondo finale, as he became rather lost in the music, suddenly finding himself out of sync with the orchestra and momentarily unsure of where he was, falling silent until a melodic entry in the woodwinds brought him back into phase to a triumphant conclusion.  (Such recoveries are always gratifying to see, but one’s heart almost stops when the soloist’s panicked look signals a breakdown.)  Although the first two movements were technically immaculate, I didn’t have the feeling that Mozart was Aimard’s emotional focus of the evening.  The first movement had a quality of rote brilliance but not deep engagement.  The second movement seemed unduly placid.  Things actually seemed to perk up a bit in the witty finale, but then, as can easily happen in a Mozart Rondo, the pianist — whose fingers can easily go into autopilot with the continuous scales and arpeggios and repeated figurations — suddenly loses concentration and forgets quite where he is in the music.  Too bad.  I’m sure it won’t happen for the repeat performances.  (Maybe he should bring out the printed music with him just to be sure.)  He’s got plenty on his mind with the Murail….  And the young page turner who assisted him in the Murail could just as well assist him in the Mozart, and will probably find it easier to follow the music.

As I mentioned above, the Messiaen and Beethoven performances were quite brilliantly done.  Robertson has a flare for Messiaen, not surprising given his background, and he brings a fresh perspective to Beethoven, a sense of discovery and, in the last two movements, wit.  This orchestra really shines in the major works of the standard repertory, and the Beethoven was no exception.  If one had an occasional sense in the second movement that ensemble in the strings was not as “tight” as it might be, one could put that down to the exigencies of rehearsing a long program with a major, unfamiliar premiere, and I’m sure it will get tighter as this series of concerts continues.  It was only in the second movement that I had that feeling.  The scherzo was a high point, and for once really played with pointed humor, benefiting tremendously by the seating of the first and second violins opposite each other, as Beethoven obviously expected from the way he scored the piece, producing effects that can easily be obscured by the seating popularized early in the 20th century by Stokowski of massing all the violins to the left of the conductor. (Happily, Gilbert usually seats the violins on opposing sides, but they were back in the old configuration a few weeks ago when Loren Maazel was guest-conducting.)

Overall, this was an excellent, if overlong, concert.  With Messiaen and Murail on the program, there were empty seats in the hall, so anybody looking for a sonic treat — the Murail is certainly that – and a thrilling performance of a work of pure genius from Beethoven, should consider getting a ticket for the repeats on Friday and Saturday at 8 pm.