Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In the beginning

Unlike ACB, the Tonier of the Steve Smiths, and the apparently in-from-London Intermezzo, I wasn't at last Monday's season-opener of Valkyrie. (I have much to say on the 1/14 Wagner performance -- a review will soon follow this post.) Instead I took in the fruit of American Lyric Theater's first "Composer/Librettist Development Program".

Of the organization itself I know little, but while I find their account of opera's history debatable their goals and methods seem worthy. For this project ALT matched four would-be librettists (mostly from the theater world) with five composers, and had each work up a short piece under the guidance of librettist and composer Mark Adamo (who seems to be a friend of the company).

Both Adamo's remarkable debut opera, Little Women, and his ambitious, stimulating, and sensually arresting -- if ultimately unsuccessful -- version of Lysistrata are to his own words, making him the rare composer with the linguistic and theatrical awareness to be successful also as librettist. As such, he's a natural for this kind of program, and in fact seems to have done it before.

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In this case, Adamo asked the five teams to all work on the same scenario. By his account, he's learned to begin work by setting out the gestural-dramatic skeleton of the piece (sort of an intertitle-less silent-movie storyboard -- half-jokingly identified with Busoni's notion of "gestus"), on which he sets both music and text. In this case, the skeleton he gave the participants was derived from the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Though audience members were not given a copy of this outline, the gist (minus some of the emotional cues, I'm afraid) seemed to be something like this:
Scene 1 -- Adam is tempted by the apple. Eve comes and they argue. Eve ends up with the apple.
Scene 2 -- Eve pushes the apple on the Snake. The Snake refuses it and tempts Eve. She tastes it, with ecstatic result.
Scene 3 -- Eve tries to tempt Adam with the apple but fails. He rejects her for consuming it and they are not reconciled.
What might seem a fairly restrictive outline was in fact quite permissive: though the relationships had more or less to be maintained, the guidelines allowed "Adam", "Eve", the Snake, and even the apple to appear in any guise. One team had the "apple" as a perfume bottle, another a Thomas Hardy poem. (Two did, however, write about actual apples.) Settings varied from a mental hospital (pre-empting, of course, any European production of the piece...) to a surreal edition of Kafka's Prague.

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Both the method and the actual scenario show, I think, Adamo's deep and deeply dramatic understanding of opera. There are, of course, other ways to work up a successful piece, but the ground of exhibited and changing relationships onstage is a terrific one on which composer and writer can meet, foregrounding both the fact of dramatic presence (only thinly considered in most concert music) and the deliberate scenic pace and method of opera (very different from spoken drama). The subject, too, is close to the heart of things, enacting the pattern of not-quite-to-be-fulfilled desire that grounds not only much opera but perhaps human culture altogether -- and in the form of the theme's first remembered appearance in Western story.

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Of the librettists, two -- Quincy Long and Emily Charlotte Conbere -- really seemed to seize upon the essentially operatic possibilities of a scenario foregrounding desire, while one -- Deborah Brevoort -- missed the mark entirely with a thinly imagined and disappointingly un-operatic (no desire, thus no honest conflict) bit of political theater. The fourth, Royce Vavrek, did two libretti, each with interesting ideas that seemed not at odds with but a bit orthogonal to the opera-dramatic interest.

Of the textures -- both musical and textual -- I'm afraid I saw and heard rather too little (particularly when the musical settings were not all finished, some setting as little as one scene) to offer interesting commentary, though composer Aleksandra Vrebalov does deserve credit for making something interesting of the least grateful text.

Of the (mostly young and rising) performers, all did well -- particularly on incredibly short notice -- but special kudos goes to soprano Amanda Pabyan, who, in these under-half-hour pieces, gave her two characters natural and unmistakable life.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.