Saturday, December 24, 2005

Three takes

I spent three consecutive weeks (Friday, Thursday, Friday) at performances of An American Tragedy; each showed the piece as a different thing. Opening night was remarkable, but perhaps the best evening was last Friday's. Star Susan Graham was indisposed, replaced by her cover Kirsten Chavez, but that was little problem on the whole. Chavez has a smoother, less punchy top, a meltingly appealing lower register, and a more straightforwardly youthful stage demeanor than her predecessor. In Chavez's body Sondra Finchley is more Clyde Griffiths' eager co-dreamer than an ideal, composed focus of desire -- but that works too, and perhaps put attention more comfortably on the protagonist. Even in today's sea of excellent mezzos, I'd like to hear her again.

Meanwhile Nathan Gunn, I think, has gotten bad press. His voice actually shows well in the part: the only thing he lacks are the climactic high notes called for in the car aria. Unfortunately, these stick out.

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Perhaps closest kin to Clyde as an operatic protagonist is Lulu: each navigates a social rise and fall, bisected by murder. Lulu inspires desire while Clyde is its agent, but the effect of each on others reveals society and drives the plot.

Tobias Picker acknowledges it early, beginning the first latter-day scene with a nod to Berg's most beautiful of all operas, both orchestrally and in the difficult (and oddly maligned) vocal line of small-time seductress Hortense. But then all sorts of other stuff rushes in -- each character, as the official interview noted, gets not a leitmotif but a characteristic style -- adding up to a more heterogenous whole than Lulu's beauty-plus-corruption-plus-death. Is it, I wonder, the fracturing of this equation that's bothered critics? The loveliness of Lulu's sound must, no less than her person's, be paid with violence. Conlon's Friday account happily brought this element of An American Tragedy out more than before, but there's nothing in the score that approximates the violence of, say, Berg's central interlude. Instead -- everything else. And then savaging -- in ink.

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Noted: two music-journalism professionals who've admitted to liking the new piece are blog proprietors. Meanwhile, the local doyen of opera criticism offers yet another by-the-book trashing of Picker's work.

Don't ask me what that means, though.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.