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7.12.05

An American Tragedy

The Critics:

Allan Kozinn, At the Met, the Tweaking of a Tragedy (New York Times, December 2)

George Loomis, How to set America to music (Financial Times, December 2)

Verena Dobnik, 'An American Tragedy' could be the best of Broadway ... except it's at the Metropolitan Opera (Associated Press, December 2)

Martin Bernheimer, American Tragedians (Opera News, December 2005)

Justin Davidson, An American Dud (Newsday, December 3)

Anthony Tommasini, Dreiser's Chilling Tale of Ambition and Its Price (New York Times, December 3)

Mike Silverman, Met Premieres Tobias Picker Opera (Associated Press, December 3)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: An American Tragedy at the Met (PlaybillArts, December 4)

Mark Swed, A comfortable 'Tragedy' (Los Angeles Times, December 5)

Martin Bernheimer, An American Tragedy - Metropolitan Opera New York (Financial Times, December 5)

Greg Sandow, Met's Leaden 'American Tragedy' (Washington Post, December 5)

John von Rhein, 'American Tragedy' falls short, despite sound cast (Chicago Tribune, December 6)

David Patrick Stearns, Met premieres opera based on Dreiser novel (Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6)

Tim Smith, Met gives impressive launch to opera 'American Tragedy' (Baltimore Sun, December 11)

The Bloggers:

Wellsung (Jonathan)

Wellsung (Alex)

Leon Dominguez, Prima: An American Tragedy (Sieglinde's Diaries, December 3)

Cafe Aman (Anastasia Tsioulcas)

Jerry Bowles, Tragedy or Not? (Sequenza 21, December 4, with a great set of comments)
New opera premieres should get exactly the kind of press attention that they have gotten this season, or even more, earlier in San Francisco (Doctor Atomic) and now at the Met, with Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, adapted from Theodore Dreiser's novel of the same name, from 1925. I will not be able to weigh in on the wave of opinion until I have the chance to hear the opera, on the Met Opera Broadcast, scheduled for Saturday, December 24, at 1:30 pm. I would have been rather nervous as I listened to the report, on Friday, on the preparation for the premiere from NPR. At the point the story was put together, the composer had apparently not settled on one of three possible endings to the opera. However, this sort of last-minute tweaking has been part of the history of opera and musical theater since the beginning.

Much of the talk has been about Picker's musical style, which apparently leans away from spiky atonality toward Broadway traditionalism. In response to Martin Bernheimer's questions about the opera for his article in this month's Opera News, both conductor James Conlon and director Francesca Zambello got defensive on Picker's behalf:
The conductor bristles slightly when asked about Picker’s idiom. Is it progressive? Conservative? “I tend not to make value judgments according to whether a work is or isn’t avant-garde. In any case, conducting a new work is not more difficult than conducting Tosca — just different.” [...]

Like Conlon, [Francesca Zambello] admits a distaste for stylistic labels. “Modern? What does that mean? The opera has a strong narrative with very human characters set in the context of powerful social, religious and ideological issues. That probably means it is old-fashioned. If so, it is what I believe operas should be.”
Anthony Tommasini was polite in his review for the New York Times but gives us the impression that the Met's poor record on operatic commissions is not excused by this lackluster example:
Though "An American Tragedy" is essentially a conventional work and whole stretches of Mr. Picker's score would not be out of place in a Broadway theater, the opera is accomplished, dramatically effective and thoroughly professional. [...] Still, in getting behind this project, the Met was playing it safe. The subject is taken from a lofty, though still relevant and troubling literary work. Mr. Picker embraces opera as a populist art form. Those wary of contemporary music will find Mr. Picker's Neo-Romantic idiom much easier on the ears than, say, that garish shocker Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." While John Adams (in "Doctor Atomic"), Thomas Adès (in "The Tempest") and Poul Ruders (in "The Handmaid's Tale") have pushed at the boundaries of the genre, Mr. Picker hews to melodramatic and operatic conventions. Yet he does so with undeniable skill.
Mark Swed's review for the Los Angeles Times says essentially the same thing but much more overtly:
Although none is a masterpiece, John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles," Philip Glass' "The Voyage" and John Harbison's "The Great Gatsby" have something to say dramatically and music worth hearing. Unfortunately, the latest Met commission — Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy," which had its first performance Friday night — has neither. The production is handsome and sure. Friday's performance proved enjoyable. Picker's score contains lush, singable, flowing music, easy on the ear. Gene Scheer's libretto is, to a fault, literate and considerate of composer, singer and audience. But three-hours plus in the Met's plush seats, hearing a plush pit orchestra play plush music under a plush set populated by plush-voiced singers, conventionally illustrating the high points of Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, reminded me of those deluxe Grand Hyatt hotels springing up in places like Berlin and Tokyo. The décor is appealing, and the comfort level is very high. A veneer of sophistication is unmistakable, as is a certain design imagination. But even though such hotels hope to be attractions in their own right, they are ultimately bland, soulless places serving to shield the rich from a city's culture. Picker's operas are similar shields. He pays lip service to social concerns and class differences, but ultimately his is an art of accommodation — to singers stuck in the past, to audiences wanting what they already know and to opera companies eyeing donors' checkbooks.
Justin Davidson's review was the most heavy-handed, quipping that "the saddest part of 'An American Tragedy' is how much talent, time, good will and money were spent on such a flaccid melodrama." George Loomis, in his review for the Financial Times, cites one composer's hesitations about the new operas being created lately in the United States:
Not everyone is optimistic about the long-term prospects for new American operas. John Adams, for example, argues that many new American operas have "no legs", the implication being that they are artificial constructs, created for celebrity performers, with no independent life. On the other hand, important opera composers from the past also wrote for celebrities, typically with little if any concern for posterity. "I wanted to write an opera with real emotions people identify with," says Picker, "with music that is expressive, emotional, passionate. Major operas are being written today that will survive."
Only time will tell if this opera has a life beyond its premiere production. Picker's apparent gamble -- the musical theaterization of opera -- may pay off, but there's no way to tell. The vast majority of critics, however, have been politely and sometimes stridently negative.

2 comments:

Henry Holland said...

Let me say this upfront: I *LOVE* "modern" music, or, as lovers of Bach would call it "plink plonk music". I love Birtwistle, Boulez, Reimann, Ligeti, Saariaho etc. the lot of those post-Webern types. Having heard all three, this

While John Adams (in "Doctor Atomic"), Thomas Adès (in "The Tempest") and Poul Ruders (in "The Handmaid's Tale") have pushed at the boundaries of the genre

is utter rubbish. "Doctor Atomic" is utterly conventional, the only thing different about is the subject matter; the music is already dated. "The Tempest" has a much spikier harmonic language than the Adams, but again, it's a very conventional, "operatic" treatment of Shakespeare's great play. "The Handmaidens Tale" is a bit out there in comparison; it does play with time and space a little and uses some techniques, such as taped speech and so on, that you won't find in Verdi. Again, though, it's a straighforward story told in a fairly typical way.

You want an opera that pushes the boundaries of the form? Try Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus. I'd love to see a production of this, but it's doubtful that it'll ever be produced again (it requires HUGE forces and a lot of rehearsals). Or, of a slightly older vintage, Zimmerman's wild Die Soldaten, which at a couple of points, has 3 scenes going on at the same time, all couched in a musical language that 98% of listeners would hate (I love it, of course).

I'm really bored to tears with this whole "ooohhh, it's not a radical reshaping of what opera can be!" thing that happens with new operas. For me, the critics are just silly, mainly, as they mostly lauded Adams dull, mediocre piece and acted like it was going to herald A New Age of American Opera. Opera was taken as far as it could go and still be opera--not music theatre, such as what Peter Maxwell Davies was doing with stuff like Songs for a Mad King--long ago and this sort of wish for radicalism that's still somehow going to be popular is just....lame.

If a composer is handed a good libretto that provides a) opportunities for music to fill in the cracks; b) is singable and c) has a bit of poetry AND if the composer writes appropriate music (i.e. you wouldn't want to sound like Birtwistle while doing a comedy) that defines the characters and moves the story along, no matter what the musical language, that's all I ask for.

Expect to this silly argument hashed out again when WNO does Nicholas Maw's Sophies Choice next season.

Edward Peterlin said...

Now that folks have had a chance to hear this opera for themselves via the Met Broadcasts, I hope that the mostly negative opinion expressed by reviewers can finally be unmasked as a farce. Unlike many other modern artistic fields, opera has a rich history of hundreds of years. Nearly no one comes to an opera without the expectations built up from years of listening to the most sublime works from all periods. Hundreds of operas needed to be written to make even one repitoire piece...and how intriguing it is and how fortunate we all are to be able to listen to this process still in progress today.

Is "An American Tragedy" the next "Aida"? Is it a "great" opera? No. But it is a phenomenal achievement that should not be ignored. Having had the opportunity to see it in person, record the broadcast, and listen to it five times, it is a mediocre opera that has the opportunity to become a vehicle for great singers.

It suffers from the same flaws as other American operas like Floyd's Susannah and other pseudo-american operas like Puccini's Girl of the Golden West (another Met premiere)...they're not strong operas all-around, but when they shine they glisten like fine-cut diamonds.

Act 1 of "An American Tragedy", besides the last scene, can be ignored. It is setup, driving the story. Aside from the uneventful introduction of some motifs that do not become apparent until the second listening of the opera, many of the introductory scenes bring nothing challenging to the mind or to the ear.

Except for the chords that strike the beginning of the overture to the first act...they re-appear as the opening of the pinnacle of the opera in Act II, the brief opening for Clyde's mother's aria "You did nothing to deserve this" in his jail cell. Dolora Zajick delivers a performance that can drive one to tears, and if you haven't heard the recording or turned it off you need to kick yourself. Just as Cecilia was a vehicle for Tebaldi due to a single character, An American Tragedy is an utter vehicle for any mezzo Elvira. Given the parent/sibling tension and turnaround in Act II, it is no surprise that such a dynamic Verdi mezzo would make this role sizzle like bacon on a hot skillet. No musical could make this character.

The score and libretto itself are dynamic in the sense that they show a great restraint. For better or for worse, American opera is still awaiting its genius. From the overly restrained Tender Land to the incomprehensible explosiveness of Nixon in China no American opera has been yet to even begin to approach entry into the traditional canon. Picker's work begins to get us there without the abstractness of Glass and the heavy-handedness of Floyd. Listen again, and then get a libretto and listen yet again. Many of the duets and trios have a dynamic tension the staging reinforced and may not be apparent on the first hearing.

If you still disparage this work, go out and get that Zaijck aria and replay it over and over. Wonder at how magnificent it is. Remember how we put up with such farces as La Wally and Edgar for one role or moment that makes us remember what it is that makes opera transcendent.

"An American Tragedy" is one of those operas that gives us such a moment, the rush that makes one rise up and scream "brava". As such it deserves to be treasured. This is truly opera.

ed