Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Speak According to the Book: Libretto Problems, Part II

I want you to listen closely, people, because how often do I say this about anybody: Mark Adamo is sooo right. You got that? This is especially worth noting because I was an utter bitch to Mark Adamo last time his name was written here. But he's posted one of the best reviews of Doctor Atomic in the short history of this well-publicized opera, and you should click here and read it, right now. Then while you're doing that, I'll continue to ramble on a related topic. Anthony Tommasini has written this thing about contemporary opera, which if not terrifically insightful on the subject of contemporary opera, is tremendously insightful on the subject of Anthony Tommasini. For instance, it has never occurred to him that he is dismissive of most new opera!
What? I consider myself a proselytizer for new opera, I said, someone who has urged companies to commission works and attended every premiere I could get to, always with hopeful anticipation.

See there, that's where you've made your mistake. Hopeful anticipation. Heh I mean, not really, but if you combine that hopeful anticipation with a set of weirdly specific standards, you're going to be cruelly disappointed every time. Because the U.S. opera scene, right now, seems to be dominated by two subgenres, both of which are bound to be loved by certain parties and hated by critics like Tony T. First of all, we have the good old-fashioned American Melodrama. This is your standard opera commission. It is written by an Opera Composer—the sort of composer whose name you only hear in reference to his or her latest major opera commission—in a mostly tonal musical language that opera singers love to sing and opera subscribers love to hear, because it draws on the musical tradition set down by the great composers of the operatic repertoire. But who hates American Melodrama? Classical music critics! They want something that acknowledges Wozzeck, something that acknowledges the progress that music has made in the past hundred years, which is just as silly as all the folks who would complain that the operas of Thomas Adès don't acknowledge Turandot. Why are my fellow lovers-of-modernism so afraid to admit that Puccini was one of the greatest and most influential composers of the twentieth century? And while I may think that the "progress" of the past hundred years has been an exciting journey, I can still empathize with the guy who says "...but I wouldn't wanna live there." Then we have the Prestige Spectacular. This is a big PR event for the opera company, it's the thing they can point to whenever somebody claims they don't do enough new opera, they pour a huge amount of money into it, and don't you just see every damn dollar onstage. Oh, and the names! The director is a superstar (he/she's done movies!), the librettist is a pretty big name, and the composer is... the director's friend. Audiences tend to like it—they're, god forbid, entertained—and music critics hate it. No wonder, since music is the weak link. So when Julie Taymor, JD McClatchy and Elliot Goldenthal put on their Beowulf, Tommasini objected, "Opera has long embraced spectacle, but isn’t it supposed to be a music-driven art form?" Yes! Or—well, wait, is it? Couldn't opera be an equal collaboration between different media? Or even, god forbid, driven by a great director, or a great text? (I wonder if Professor McJeebie had Tommasini's Grendel review in mind when he wrote this.) These strike me as the chief craw-stickers for Tommasini. Every single contemporary opera he singles out for praise originates with a star composer, somebody who's as well-grounded off the operatic stage as on. His ostensible point, that "specifics" make an opera strong, as opposed to "mystical effusions," falls apart right quick.

The characters in Wagner’s “Ring,” as the critic and composer Virgil Thomson once quipped, spend a lot of time “predicting doom, describing weather, soul states and ecstatic experiences.” But has there ever been a more inventively detailed generational drama?
Yes. Yes, there have certainly been a few. Like for instance, some of you may be familiar with the Star Wars cycle, in which a father-son duo of fighter-pilot samurai wizards duel in outer space, with swords made out of light. Which, lest we overestimate the value of "invention" and "detail"... I'm just gonna say, Jar-Jar. I suspect that the real problem with "mystical effusions" is that they're so dang hard to write. They're a lost art, those effusions, a second language to writers of modern English, and so they always come out stupid. Take, for instance, the libretto for John Adams' latest opera, The Flowering Tree. Now, I haven't seen the libretto actually printed anywhere—perusal of user reviews suggest that the reason our record shop can't get ahold of any copies of the CD is that the physical libretto, the Little Book with all the words in it, was misprinted with no Act Two? Anybody have this problem? Anyway I only have a promotional copy, which I got a little while before the release date, and that was fun because I got to change all of the Act One track titles in the iTunes CD Database so that instead of being in English or Spanish they were all in LOLspeak. (In case you'[re wondering, I am also the person who changed the CDDB title of John Adams' My Father Knew Charles Ives to Yo Mama Blew Charles Ives. God, I am a genius. So I can't quote much of the piece, is my point, but the first lines go something like:
Children, I want to tell you a story of love, and then pain and then love again.
I don't get this. Are love and pain mutually exclusive? You go from one to the other? And even then, is this is the most elegant way to express the idea? It's a hair away from self-parody! "Children, I want to tell you a story of love, and then pain, and then love again, and then a little more love, and then sandwiches, and then pain, and then a new dishwasher, then love, love, love, pain, love, pain, in that order." Peter Sellars' Doctor Atomic libretto, while on the whole superior, is occasionally as clumsy in its particulars as Flowering Tree is in its generalities. Mind you, Adams' attention to the nuances of operatic text-setting is as keen as always, as in this passage on the dangers of radiation poisoning:
...enough of it in the human body eats through vital tissues, disintegrates human kidneys and causes fatal bone cancer.
The triplet rhythm on the words "eats through vital tissues" syncopates eerily against the accompaniment, creating a visceral sense of unease; the word "disintegrates," tossed off much more quickly, seems itself to be dissolving into the air. The highest note in each of those last three lines climbs just a step higher than the line before it, as the symptoms mount, until our hypothetical patient finally expires on "causes fatal bone cancer" with a dramatic falling-off of rhythm and pitch. Yes, if it were possible to wring music out of the words, "and causes fatal bone cancer," this would probably be it right here. But still the phrase creeks, clanks, thuds. What is wrong with these libretti? Who can help us diagnose them? ¿¿Y ahora quién podrá defenderme?? This looks like a job for... Mark Adamo!! To be continued.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Adamo's description of the libretto is accurate but his judgment about it wide of the mark. The alternation of the prosiest of prose with splendid poetry is viscerally exciting and effective. The Donne sonnet which ends Act I is certainly vocal-driven and its baroque resonances thrilling. Sellars, whom I rarely find appealing as a director, has made a libretto that works very well for me. I have only seen the Amsterdam dvd, and I look forward to the simulcast next week.

October 26, 2008 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Well said. I'm planning to give a more nuanced reading of this opera specifically, and of Adamo's response, in the next thrilling installment of Libretto Problems.

'Yes, this libretto is a collage, and draws on a certain poetic energy that only collage can provide. And so I think Adamo is wrong to single out Oppenheimer's John Donne aria for criticism—not only did the Trinity project borrow is title from the poem, but each line, in the context of the opera, takes on multiple meanings relevant to the situation. When Oppenheimer confesses that he is "betroth'd unto Your enemy," we wonder if he has, like the Doctor Faust alluded to by the title of of the opera, sold his soul for the enormous power he is about to wield; but when he sings, "ravish me," is he begging to be mastered instead by Good, or is he simply willing himself to surrender his own moral judgment to a higher political authority? Is he praying to God, or to the Bomb?'

October 26, 2008 at 4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello: please stop playing pranks with review CDs. Now everybody who wants to listen to Flowering Tree on an iPod has retype the track listings, or suffer through your (rather feeble) joke. Your blog is for self-amusement; iTunes is not.

October 26, 2008 at 9:49 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Oh dear! I guess some I have some explaining to do.

Anonymous, you would have had to enter the correct track names anyway. I believe the only reason iTunes suggested my silly titles as the default on your computer is because no one else had submitted any to them—when I popped the disc in, they were just Track 1, Track 2, etc., on Unknown Album by Unknown Artist. I did not, as far as I know, cause you any extra work with my silliness.

All the same, I'm sorry for the distress I've caused you! And I'm sorry you didn't find the retarded little jests as amusing as my friends and I have. Don't worry, I didn't intend to pull any more.

October 27, 2008 at 12:30 AM  
Blogger Maury D'annato said...

Oh for god's sake, what are you apologizing for? It's fourth gradey but funny, and it takes under three seconds to correct it. Anonymous needs better things to worry about.

p.s. god I hate those "Opera for people who hate opera" type cd's. If you hate opera, don't listen to it. I have yet to go to a restaurant with menu items like "steak for people who hate steak."

October 28, 2008 at 11:20 AM  

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