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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. . .)

The New Season Begins – Opera, Symphony, Film, Theater

Posted on: October 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

My new culture season is duly launched.  As of last night, I’ve taken in: “Anna  Nicole,”  apparently the last production of New York City Opera, presented in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 21; the new film “Don Jon” by Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the AMC Theater on Broadway at 84th Street on September 29; a memorial celebration for my friend, the late Ari Joshua Sherman, at the DiMenna Center for the Arts that same evening, September 29; my first New York Philharmonic subscription concert at Lincoln Center on September 28; the new Broadway revival of “The Glass Menagerie” at the Booth Theatre on October 1; and the American Symphony Orchestra’s “New York Avant-Garde” concert at Carnegie Hall last night, October 3.

Herewith a brief summary of these experiences as the season really gets under way.

New York City Opera has been an important part of my cultural life ever since I arrived in the city in the fall of 1977.  I have particularly appreciated their staging of new works and works that are not central to the repertory, since the mainstream stuff is available in generally superior performances from the Metropolitan Opera.  It isn’t so much that City Opera was less expensive to attend, but that it was usually more interesting to attend, even when they were putting on standard works such as “La Boheme” or “Carmen,” since they usually found an interesting “twist” that made them seem like new works as well.

But a series of management mistakes, and the heavy fundraising competition of the Met, together with the impact of the Great Recession on charitable donations, has put the City Opera into a financially untenable position.  If there had to be a last production, I’m glad it was a new opera, a premiere for New York, and something that lived up to most of the advance hype.  Although I found Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score to be serviceable rather than memorable, the libretto by Richard Thomas would have made an excellent play with incidental music on its own, and the production directed by Richard Jones with the music conducted by Steven Sloane was consistently entertaining and attention-grabbing.  From one perspective, this might seem a trivial piece of musical theater fluff about a gold-digger who was famous for marrying an elderly billionaire and then battling his family in court for her intestate inheritance as a surviving spouse, but it had an awful lot to say as wry satire about our celebrity-obsessed society and the dangers that these “no-talent” celebrities run into as they encounter the hangers-on, exploiters, and – in this case—hostile “in laws.”   Too bad there is unlikely to be a film from this production, but I think there may be one from the original English production at Covent Garden.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon” is reportedly his first attempt at scripting and directing a major motion picture – starring himself – and I think Gordon-Levitt pulls off the Woody Allen act with aplomb.  He impersonates a “dumb jock” Jersey boy obsessed with his body, his car, his pad, his boys (friends) and his girls (sex objects).  He haunts the suburban nightclubs looking for chicks to score, and because he’s a self-confident, sexy hunk, he can have almost anybody he wants.  But the sex is not satisfying – there’s really no emotional connection – and he’s convinced that masturbating to pornography is more satisfying.  As a result, even though he’s having sex several nights a week with real women, he’s getting off to porn several times a day.  Something has to give.  And there’s the story, when he happens upon somebody to whom he’s attracted who doesn’t want to jump into bed without some personal acquaintance.   Of course, this isn’t a perfect film.  No film is.  But it is dramatically credible, well written, acted, and directed, and I found it compelling – at least to the extent that my mind never wandered, as it tends to do if a film bogs down in slow, talky, lassitude.  This one never does.

The New York Philharmonic initiated its subscription season with a program that could easily be criticized as semi-pops concert fare: Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  Light, not challenging, virtuosic, catchy tunes and rhythms, etc.  But, as expected from this orchestra conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert, everything was so well-played, and the program was actually so canny in terms of constructing a concert program that “works,” that it was a pleasure to attend.  I might have wanted the Ravel to be slightly faster in pacing, but the moderate tempo made it easier to appreciate the subtlety of orchestration, and then to remark to myself about how whoever was responsible for the orchestration of the Bernstein piece really knew their Ravel!!  This is a bit of a question, actually: Bernstein followed Broadway tradition of having the usual experts translate his piano score into an orchestration for a standard B’way pit orchestra, and various other hands were involved in extracting the dances, knitting them together into a continuous piece, and expanding the orchestration for a symphony orchestra.  Of course, the musical ideas are Bernstein’s, but it’s unclear to what extent the orchestration is.  He didn’t even conduct the world premiere, although he subsequently recorded the piece with the NYP, and surely he approved the final orchestration and probably tweaked it. . .  As for the Tchaikovsky, Yefim Bronfman, who is the orchestra’s “artist in residence” this year, was reportedly playing it for the first time in public!  Hard to believe, not just because it was such a well-conceived and executed performance, but because he was born and educated in Russia and is famous for his Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich concerto performances. Every young pianistic firebrand is expected to have this concerto in his or her active repertory.  But for whatever reason, he hadn’t gotten around to Tchaikovsky until the NYP asked him to do it to start off this season.  Magnificent!  He and Gilbert should get right into the recording booth together.

Ari Joshua Sherman, know to his friends as Josh, passed away last spring in Vermont.  He had not let many know that he was seriously ill, and the NY friends were used to long periods between sightings after he and Jorge had shifted their principal residence from W. 108 Street to Addison, VT.  Jorge arranged two events for friends to remember Josh, one in Vermont and the other at the DiMenna Center (housed in the basement level of the Baryshnikov Center on W. 37 St.).  The event was a worthy tribute and remembrance, including performances of music that had been important to Josh, who was an enthusiastic chamber musician (violin) and music lover, interspersed with readings from the memoirs he had worked on over many years.  So sad that a long-time friend is gone, but consoling that he had such an interesting and productive life.

Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” put him on the Broadway theater map, but I find it a lesser work than some of his subsequent plays.  This performance is really mainly about Cherry Jones, one of our greatest living actors, whose portrayal of Amanda Wingfield in this production is a completely convincing one.  Talk immediately began about Tony nominations as soon as previews began, and this is now expected, regardless what happens the rest of the season.  Zachary Quinto as her son Tom is not so totally successful.  I thought it took him some time to warm up at the performance I attended, not really coming alive fully until well into the first act, but burning on all cylinders in the second.  Celia Keenan-Bolger was extraordinary as Laura, the shy daughter, and I thought her performance was right up there with Cherry Jones in terms of accomplishment and vivid characterization.  I enjoyed Brian J. Smith as “Jim, the gentleman caller,” who appears only in the second act, but then for an extended scene with Laura that provides great comic relief and emotion combined.  Smith was just right in this part.   In short, this was a performance that worked very well, performed on a set that worked very well, with fine incidental music by Nico Muhly, in a wonderful conception of the script directed by John Tiffany.  The show, whatever its flaws, was certainly worth reviving in a production of this quality as a showcase for these fine actors.

Finally, the American Symphony.  At first it appeared this concert might be lost to the Carnegie Hall stagehands’ labor dispute, which had cause cancellation of the opening night gala the prior evening.  But the union had made its point and was content to hold back for a while and allow the season to begin with the ASO while continuing to negotiate, and I just heard that a bargain was struck on Friday.

Leon Botstein’s program, “New York Avant-Garde”, took as its point of departure the famed “Armory Show of 1913” that formally introduced New York to the new “modernism” in visual art.  Botstein suggests that this program had echoes in music that first began to be expressed in New York concert halls after World War I, in a burst of musical modernism that extended to the end of the 1920s.  This showcase for the avant-garde presented music by George Antheil (A Jazz Symphony 1925), Charles Griffes (Poem for Flute and Orchestra (1918), Aaron Copland (Organ Symphony 1924), Carl Ruggles (Men and Mountains 1924), and Edgard Varese (Ameriques 1918-21).  The particular Carnegie connection was that the first and last of these pieces were first performed at Carnegie Hall during the 1920s, the Varese in a performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski, who would later in his career found and conduct the ASO.

I thought the concert was very successful, especially given the uncertainties of the day that had resulted in some juggling of last-minute rehearsal time.  The ASO secured the services of three excellent soloists.   Pianist Blair McMillen was a joy to hear and to watch as he threw himself body and soul into the Antheil Jazz Symphony, which is not quite a piano concerto but at times seems to think it is one, with extended piano cadenzas that McMillen tossed off insouciantly.  Randolph Bowman, principal flutist for the Cincinnati Symphony and the ASO’s summer seasons at Bard College, was excellent in the sumptuous Griffes piece.  Stephen Tharp pulled out all the stops (couldn’t resist that) in the Copland, whose organ part was originally conceived for Nadia Boulanger’s American tour and appearances with the Boston Symphony and New York Symphony.  This first half of the concert was just one thrill after another.

I was a bit less thrilled by the second half.  I’ve never quite “gotten” Ruggles.  Although at times I find his orchestration to be interesting, I don’t get a feeling of organic flow to his compositions, which to me are an essential part of music.  It feels too static, too granitic, although on this occasion I had a more favorable reaction to the middle movement – Lilacs – which actually seemed to flow in the hands of the ASO string players, who made a warm sound amidst the pounding brass of the outer movements. 

The first time I heard Ameriques at Carnegie Hall, Christoph von Dohnanyi was conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.  On that occasion, it struck me forcibly how strongly influenced Varese was influenced by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, which was first performed shortly before World War I broke out.  I was less struck by the resemblance at the ASO concert, perhaps because Botstein’s interpretation was less overtly aggressive than Dohnanyi’s. 

Overall, however, I thought this was a useful concert for bringing to light music that doesn’t get played very much, and the orchestra did a marvelous job of pulling it together and making it work.