Tod Machover at the Boston Lyric Opera; the Cantata Singers’ Missa solemnis
BY LLOYD SCHWARTZ
The Boston Lyric Opera once promised an American opera every season. Although that commitment has not been strictly honored, there’ve been more seasons with American operas than not. The new production of Tod Machover’s Resurrection — based on Tolstoy’s last novel — is the BLO’s youngest opera, only two years old (it had its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in April 1999), and its first by a Boston composer. (It’ll have three more performances at the Shubert this week: Friday evening, Sunday afternoon, and Tuesday evening.)
Machover is best known for working with electronic instruments. He’s been at MIT since 1985, and he’s just become director of its new Center for Future Arts. But though there are eerie and magical electronic effects in the orchestration of Resurrection, the music for his second opera is mainly acoustic — a motoric combination of minimalist repetition, pounding but shifting rhythms, and a broad spectrum of instrumental color. There’s also an upbeat C-major finale that reviewers have compared to The Sound of Music, Les Miz, West Side Story (the concluding chorus "We must live on this earth,/Somehow" especially recalls Bernstein’s "There’s a place for us . . . Somewhere"), and Up with People. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned "grand opera," with many individual characters and large choral groups in a variety of places: a courtroom, a country estate, a wealthy townhouse, a prison — finally opening out to a desolate Siberian landscape.
Using Simon Higlett’s colorful gowns and folk costumes, gray uniforms, and drab shmatas from Houston (Higlett designed the entire Houston production), the BLO’s most consistently striking set designer, Erhard Rom (Aida, The Postman Always Rings Twice), came up with strong stage images. Under a constructivist erector-set frame, a rear aperture slides open in the black backdrop to reveal the self-absorbed hero, Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov, getting dressed by his valet for jury duty. Later, in a flashback, the aperture reopens on a grove of birches at the spring festival where the prince first falls in love with his aunt’s beautiful servant girl, Katusha Maslova, whom he soon "wrongs."
She’s now a prostitute, and it’s her trial for murder and robbery for which Nekhlyudov is a juror. He’s sure she’s innocent but would rather not admit he knows her. His silence, the haste of the court to get the trial over with, and a bureaucratic snafu in the wording of the verdict gets Katusha eight years of hard labor in Siberia. Overcome by guilt, Nekhlyudov follows her there. Rom’s Siberia is a High Romantic snowdrift out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting. A lazy-susan turntable moves the chorus of marching prisoners in circles and whisks suffering bodies around the stage. Jonathan Culbert’s dramatic lighting (a dimly glaring disc of sun, the shadows of a brutal whipping) is flawed only by the obtrusive shadow of a stage curtain against the Siberian horizon.
Laura Harrington’s libretto is an efficient condensation of Tolstoy’s plot, but it lets Machover down in damaging ways. The writing itself is either too prosaic for music ("Are you all right?" "I’m fine.") or absurdly soap-opera-ish ("Touch me, Dmitry"). There’s less real dialogue than a series of announcements: "I’m illegitimate" (Katusha); "There are two people fighting within me" (Nekhlyudov); "We march, we march" (the prisoners, over and over). Or banal pronouncements: "Violence begets violence"; "People change, and in change there is hope." Nekhlyudov’s aristocratic fiancée, so poignantly dignified in the novel, becomes a caricature of an old maid desperate for a proposal. Tolstoy’s passionate love scene between Nekhlyudov and Katusha is here a violent rape.
The opera is about the spiritual transformations of its two major characters, but these transformations are merely abbreviated statements of intent rather than fully realized dramatizations. The hero suddenly decides to give up everything he owns to save the prostitute ("How can I go on living?"). She careers without apparent motivation from drunken bitterness to self-sacrificing resignation. These momentous decisions are the soul of the novel. In the opera, they’re reduced to clichés.
In Houston, director Braham Murray often lapsed into melodrama. Nekhlyudov repeatedly fell to his knees. But at least we were made aware of the life-altering turning points. The BLO’s Leon Major has Nekhlyudov decide to change his life while his valet changes his coat. In Houston, Murray’s brilliant idea was to stage Nekhlyudov’s guilty flashback in the middle of the courtroom, with the judge and jurors remaining on stage in silent witness. Major’s "ideas" are less original. The country people dance in slow motion while Tony and Maria — oops, Nekhlyudov and Katusha — sing their infatuation. Why should inmates in a jail claw and climb the bars as if they were in an asylum (shades of Marat/Sade)?
The Houston production had a cast of powerful singers. One of them, coloratura Kerri Marcinko, repeats the role of Nekhlyudov’s fiancée; another, tenor Derrick Parker, sings three roles, all different from the three he sang in the world premiere. Too bad the BLO didn’t also get Houston baritone Scott Hendricks for Nekhlyudov. In Boston, Carleton Chambers’s light voice doesn’t sound mature enough for this demanding role. He has to strain to be heard over the churning orchestra, and he hasn’t figured out how to project Nekhlyudov’s inner conflicts. Spunky mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham, on the other hand, negotiates Katusha’s high tessitura, and her vibrant voice, though unvaried in color, slices through the dense texture with no-nonsense authority if not always with ease.
Katusha’s vocal line, like most of the vocal music, is in ceaseless motion, a continuous melisma closer to chant than to singing speech. Almost every syllable has multiple notes — a kind of late-20th-century version of coloratura (which doesn’t consistently illuminate the words). But Katusha also gets the opera’s most profound moment of lyrical repose, an oasis in the moto perpetuo — a dark "folk" lullaby she sings to the little daughter of an oppressed prisoner: "Oh that I were where I would be,/Then would I be where I am not." It’s Harrington’s most convincing text, and Machover surrounds his haunting tune with a spectral electronic halo; no other instruments play. Opening night here it sounded a little corny, though it hadn’t in Houston — was the volume control on the electronic keyboards turned up too high? This moment in Katusha’s resurrection is, for me, the emotional core of the opera, and Abraham sings it with tender, heartfelt simplicity.
The rest of the cast are largely excellent, with some — Armenian mezzo Victoria Avetisyan, BU MA candidate Amy Feather — making their BLO debuts and others — versatile baritone David Kravitz, refulgent mezzo Gale Fuller, and tenor Harold Gray Meers (as Simonson, the political prisoner who falls in love with Katusha) — happily returning. Surtitles help where good English diction fails (maybe the libretto would sound better in Russian). From the roiling sense of doom in the overture to the relentless tread of the Siberian prisoners, conductor Christopher Larkin and the committed orchestra ride Machover’s musical juggernaut while affording the few lyrical moments breathing room. But the final chorus, "We have been blessed and now we must live," seems even more sentimental, derivative, and distended than it did in Houston, more willed than hard-won, as if the more it got repeated the more we might believe it. Machover has apparently made some revisions, but he needs to reconsider his ending. I didn’t think the post–September 11 Boston audience bought it.
"Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp," says Robert Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, "Or what’s a heaven for?" There’s something terrifically affecting about a work or a performance that attempts to go beyond the limits of possibility. For all its flaws, Resurrection is an admirable effort — a big reach for its composer, and the company’s resurrection of its best values.
BEETHOVEN’S MISSA SOLEMNIS is another such work — certainly one that no single performance can fully capture. The closest I’ve heard in live performance was David Hoose’s with the Cantata Singers nearly seven years ago. Their latest included two of the same soloists: mezzo-soprano Gloria Raymond, still in potent voice and unusually impassioned, and tenor Mark Evans, still intense but more constricted, less steady; and two newcomers: soprano Jennifer Foster, whose velvety tone (a friend called it "vocal felt") was compromised by her avoiding the pronunciation of any consonants, and the elegant but emotionally detached bass Mark-Andrew Cleveland.
Yet the few drawbacks didn’t much matter. Hoose once again led this in a white heat. At times he was literally trembling with his effort to get the chorus and orchestra to give more and still more — and they repaid him magnificently. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting version — exploding with power, breathtaking in its momentum, but also veering into a realm of spiritual privacy and suspended quietude, as in Beethoven’s surprisingly hushed Sanctus and Benedictus. The Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, first performed only a month apart, were Beethoven’s last major communal works before he turned completely inward in his late quartets. Has anyone ever composed an Osanna more restrained? Or an Agnus Dei more somber in its plea for peace? "Pacem" is the final word here (there’s no concluding Amen); rarely has it seemed more fervently implored, especially after the war threat of off-stage trumpets, and rarely has Beethoven’s resolution been more earned.
But let me also quote Hoose’s program note. "The wish for music, and art in general, to offer answer, solace, or perspective has risen sharply to the surface," he writes. But the Cantata Singers, he reminds us, chose to put the Missa solemnis on this season’s schedule a year ago. Making it seem a reaction to any current event "may compromise its true potential," because "music’s rich strength lies not in its ability to respond to specific events, offer an answer, or soothe emotional injury" but "in its ability to form an argument that deeply engages the entire self." Whatever music was chosen for this concert, Hoose argues, would have offered "listening hearts" something of what they were seeking.
He’s right to warn us against a sentimental reading. And yet weren’t we lucky to have this very work, with its powerful alternation of public and private questioning and its prayer for peace, in this particular performance, to contemplate, to engage our entire selves, at this particular moment of crisis?
Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001