06 December 2005

Random Notes: An American Tragedy

1. Nathan Gunn's bare torso makes an appearance in Act I, Scene 5, at the extreme right side of the stage. Those positioned in the left boxes have to stretch their necks a bit for a view. In Act II, Scene 1, he appears in cute swimwear, on the edge of the second tier of the set: a great view for everyone. [Pictures of these two events can be found here.] A true diva, Gunn has about a dozen costume changes throughout the evening.

2. We spend much of our energy on curatorial work around opera's beautiful corpse: exhibition, redescription, auto-cleaning, relighting, replacing the frame. After others dissertate about history and meaning, we're left as bitchy (but content) connoiseurs of sound and voice. The rare arrival of a new operatic work is a resurrection of something: of the "art" (if we're lucky) or at least of haunting questions that suspend our ideas of what opera is (what it does, what it ought to do).

3. The challenges placed on the shoulders of a new work are impossible to meet. In order to be truly "new", it has to disrupt and destroy. But these days opera is a gigantic, conservative material institution, a category 5 hurricane whose immense momentum is circular, but the central eye moving hardly at all. What are the definitions of "success," under these conditions? They will vary from person to person.

4. There are many ways to dispute details of Justin Davidson's savage account of the prima, but his main argument is, in its own terms, honest. He begins by characterizing Picker's work as "flaccid melodrama." I suspect that the operative word there (in Davidson's mind) is melodrama. Opera's full of it; Davidson may simply be of the opinion that we have enough, and that therefore it's a monumental waste of cosmos to make more of it, flaccid or otherwise. (Meanwhile, I'm a sucker for melodrama; therein lies the difference.)

5. But I wouldn't call this melodrama flaccid; I'd first use the adjective professional, maybe (on a good day) even inspired. More accurately: the melodrama has a thoroughly professional core, from which starbursts of inspired moments emanate.

6. Regarding details, Davidson injects: "For a composer with an ear for melody, he keeps launching lovely tunes, only to pinch them off after a few bars," then cites the one aria (Sondra's New York City aria in Act I) that may not have worked as well as others. Sieglinde does this rhetorical trick as well: isolate the one point that makes the case, and make it seem representative of the whole. Meanwhile, Act II is teeming with delicious melody, but of the kind Davidson might dismiss as furthering the "flaccid melodrama," i.e., damned either way.

7. Martin Bernheimer skins it best: "An American Tragedy may be the perfect modern opera for people who hate modern opera." This is why Tony Tommasini is anguished: he would have wanted to witness more daring (and I suspect would have secretly wanted to write like Davidson, but alas, the giant NYT, like the Met, is by definition conservative in such matters); sensing the vigorous vox populi, however, he finds the key to faint praise. In the end, he concludes, "(y)et critics and opera buffs who want the Met to do its part to make opera a living art form have to be heartened that it presented this work, and that an audience on Friday gave a prolonged ovation to a living composer."

8. But how is it possible to find little argument with Tommasini's critique, while at the same time appreciate Wellsung's critique of the critique? Because we know that opera is long deceased, but still hope for some antidote to death. The "art" of opera no longer lies in the work itself but in its interpretation: opera's afterlife is spent finding the diversity of voices that can further illuminate the corpse. This is why Sieglinde likes Picker's work, which may be an honest acknowledgement that today, by and large, the operatic score is but a platform for drama and voice. Foremost, An American Tragedy exhibits her stellar cast's supreme vocal and dramatic abilities quite accessibly, which is why Sieglinde was all about that in her initial reactions.

9. [This is between us: Sieglinde would love to have been to the Doctor Atomic prima instead.]

10. A press round-up appears here. Another Wellsung critique of a critique appears here. A music critic almost had something for us that's "well out of line with the general tenor of my critical caste." We really don't know what to think of it, really. I'm listening to a "dumpling" of Act II; the voices are indeed magnificent. I'm seeing An American Tragedy again next week. Till then, I'm off this topic.