MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere from Mohammed Fairouz

Prince3

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Seattle Vanguard:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

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Fairouz, now 31, based his first opera, Sumeida’s Song (2011), on Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim’s play about the fatal conflict between unthinking tradition and enlightened progress. Zabur, a combination oratorio and war requiem (just out on the Naxos label), embodies his powerfully moving response to the situation in Syria that seeks hope amid its harrowing musical depiction of crimes  against humanity. Next year Pittsburgh Opera will present the opera Fairouz is currently completing: Bhutto, which focuses on the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (assassinated in 2007), the first woman to lead Muslim majority nation. The composer, who is also active as a commentator on foreign affairs, cowrote the libretto with the journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif.

Meet the New Prince

The New Prince is characteristic of Fairouz both in the scope of its ambition and in being so effortlessly of our time. Set to David Ignatius’ clever libretto, The New Prince imagines Niccolò Machiavelli doing the time warp across the centuries as he faces the challenge of updating the work for which his name has become notorious — and profoundly misunderstood: Il Principe (The Prince).

The premise is that the Renaissance philosopher, writer, and diplomat has been reawakened in 2032 — 500 years after The Prince had been (posthumously) published — and must substantially revise his text to appeal to a changed marketplace. His lover and Muse, the goddess Fortuna, tells him he needs to account for world historical events in the intervening centuries. And he needs a “new prince” — a protege whom he can advise about how to wield power: Wu Virtu, the president of Amerasiopia, the troubled fusion nation of the near-future.

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

This basic scenario borrows the structure Jacques Offenbach used in his Tales of Hoffmann, in which a sequence of self-contained episodes we see unfolding is unified by the presence of the writer and his muse. In a framing prologue and epilogue, we see the distressed Machiavelli  try to come to terms with his lot; by the end, as in Hoffmann, he is compelled to find solace by retreating into his inner creative world.

In The New Prince, the quickly moving episodes present famous figures from history caught up in various sorts of errors that will threaten their control of power — cautionary tales Machiavelli uses to illustrate his point, though the self-absorbed Wu Virtu only half-listens and has no interest in letting the lessons sink in.

We see examples of “why princes should beware of revolutions” in the figures of Savonarola (the fiery Florentine preacher from Machiavelli’s own time), Hitler, Chairman Mao, and the revolution-counterrevolution of contemporary Egypt. Next comes the lesson on “why princes should suppress (or hide) their human urges,” starting with the first U.S. sex scandal (a cheating Alexander Hamilton) and repeated in the Clinton-Lewinsky melodrama.

The last lesson addresses “why princes must avoid a ‘collision of civilizations.’” In the aftermath of 9-11, the figures of Osama bin Laden and Dick Cheney are seen to be alter egos in their rigid appeal to abstract “higher laws” at the expense of real human beings.

Prince1

photo © Marco Borggreve

David Ignatius is a veteran writer best known as a foreign policy expert (he’s an esteemed Washington Post columnist and editor) and also as the author of such bestselling espionage novels as the first-rate Body of Lies. But this is his debut venture as an opera librettist. Using the Hoffmann model as a guide was an inspired idea. Ignatius also seems to have had the tone of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in mind — his tight verse radiates a sardonic humor throughout, even in the most disturbing sections.

At times I was even reminded of a Brechtian Lehrstück in the “parable”-like line-up of events — though, of course, the lessons intended here are never learned. Thus the lack of character “development” — save for the negative enlightenment experienced by the hero — is inherent in the narrative fabric. Most of the characters are meant to be quick sketches, not fully fleshed out psychological portraits a la naturalism.

Ignatius adds a fascinating twist to the Tales of Hoffmann model. Machiavelli himself is assigned a “ghost-writer” in the form of that eminently modern Machiavellian (in the popular sense), Henry Kissinger — whom the Italian prizes as ideally suited to serve as his “scribe and jester.”

And in place of the evil personified by Dapertutto — Hoffmann’s arch-nemesis in Offenbach’s opera — The New Prince suggests persistently recurrent human foibles as the roadblock to effective rule. Despite believing he has “figured out, at last, the trick that makes the grand game work,” Machiavelli continues to wonder at the resistance of would-be “princes” throughout history to his wisdom: “Does anyone listen? Can any power bend the chain of princely error?”

Prince6

photo © Marco Borggreve

Strong Production Values

Fairouz has composed a delightfully fluid score that unites his gift for writing for the voice with his bold symphonic imagination. The orchestra isn’t particularly large — it had to be accommodated by the pit of the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, an alternate venue used by Dutch National Opera for some of its projects — but Fairouz paints a remarkable variety of soundscapes with economy.

The opening prologue in particular sets up the world of the opera with terrifying immediacy as we see Machiavelli undergoing strappado torture at the hand of the Medicis. The intermissionless New Prince ranges wildly across stylistic references (as it does across centuries) — curt Weill-like marches, Baroque gestures, touches of Broadway and cabaret, and simple but soul-searing melodies — but amid this cornucopia of musical imagery there erupts, always surprisingly, a sudden, live-wire interjection by the orchestra.

It seems to tap right into the violence that forms a perennial bedrock of human history — and that, for all his calculation, Machiavelli is never able to subdue or suppress. Fairouz also uses a recurring harmonic sequence as a metaphoric binding device. It’s reminiscent of Philip Glass, but Fairouz makes the gesture his own by recontextualizing it into his riotously eventful score.

With his large, expressive baritone and vivid stage presence, Joshua Hopkins excelled in creating the role of Machiavelli. Fairouz reserves most of the opera’s vocal highlights for him — especially the chastened beauty of the epilogue, after so much frantic activity, in which Machiavelli resigns himself and prepares to “enter the courts of the ancients.”

There’s also some terrific material for Fortuna (strikingly characterized by Karin Strobos), but I longed for more-extended treatments of several major characters. Simon Lim’s Wu Virtu was imposing, but the character ends up feeling too much like a blank slate to make his turning against Machiavelli at the end effective.

Prince5

photo © Marco Borggreve

The New Prince calls for a large cast of 13, and filling the roles was a mix of trained opera singers, actors involved in musical theater, and young artists from DNO’s training program. Thus Kissinger was played, with roguish style, by the Broadway performer Marc Kudisch. (It’s interesting to compare his characterization with that in John Adams’s Nixon in China from 1987, which as far as I know is the first — and only other — work to have brought the diplomat to the opera stage. In Nixon he has more of a comic relief function.)

In keeping with the opera’s core idea of the recurring patterns of human nature and history — a lesson that, we sense, makes Machiavelli suffer profound disillusionment in his 500+-year-old reincarnation — several cast members played multiple roles. Barbara Walsh, doubling as Eliza Hamilton and Hillary Clinton, exuded vulnerability, while Paulo Szot was true luxury casting for a combined Alexander Hamilton, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney. As a supremely cocky Cheney, Szot was especially memorable in his duet with the marvelous actor George Abud’s chillingly assured bin Laden.

DNO puled out all the stops in terms of production values. Lotte de Beer proved why she’s such a prized director, shaping a brand-new, heavily ensemble-oriented show into a thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Her urgent pacing, along with the choreography by Zack Winokur, was perfectly attuned to Fairouz’s busy score, abetted by Alex Brok’s almost hallucinogenic lighting design (with its occasional parodies of Broadway kitsch) and the time-traveling set and costume design by Clement & Sanôu.

Conductor Steven Sloane showed affinity for Fairouz’s highly theatrical score while also eliciting a symphonic attention to detail from the Residentie Orkest.

As a counterpart to the Cheney-bin Laden scene, Fairouz and Ignatius include an appearance by the late diplomat Prince Saud al-Faisal. It’s a bit too “straight” to fit in with the tone of the rest of the opera, but the message — that there can never be a “clash of civilizations between us … it is a contradiction in terms” — introduces a hopeful counterpoint to Machiavelli’s dictum that “if we must choose between being feared and loved, we should choose to be feared.”

Perhaps the new Machiavelli, in light of his latest experiences, will reevaluate that advice and discover a more reliable method to enlighten the ideal prince.

(c)2017 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, review

Timeless Machiavelli, Timely Opera: A World Premiere From Mohammed Fairouz

Prince2

photo © Marco Borggreve

My review of the new opera by Mohammed Fairouz has now been posted on Vanguard Seattle:

There’s been a huge push in recent years for those involved in the performing arts to seem as “relevant” and “relatable” as possible. Nowhere more so than in the areas mistakenly perceived as “elitist” — above all opera and orchestral music.

But writing persuasively — with no special pleading needed — about issues and dilemmas that have a contemporary urgency seems to come naturally to Mohammed Fairouz, the acclaimed Emirati-American composer whose latest work, The New Prince, just received its world premiere in an impressive production directed by Lotte de Beer at Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. Regarded as among the most forward-looking opera companies in the world, DNO commissioned The New Prince as part of its Opera Forward Festival initiative, which promotes new artists and fresh approaches to the art form.

continue reading

Filed under: American opera, commissions, Mohammed Fairouz, new opera, review, Vanguard Seattle

Dinner at Eight Fails to Sate the Appetite

My Musical America review of the new opera Dinner at Eight by composer William Bolcom and librettist Mark Campbell is now live (behind the MA paywall).

ST. PAUL, MN–Minnesota Opera has long had in place a vigorous program to promote the creation of contemporary works. Dinner at Eight is the latest of these and brings the tally of new operas that the company has produced to 45. For this project …

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Filed under: American opera, Minnesota Opera, Musical America, review, William Bolcom

The Multifaceted Imagination of Mohammed Fairouz

MohammedFairouz-1050x700My latest piece on this wonderful composer has now been posted on Rhapsody:

It’s not every day you expect a major talk show to spotlight a composer from the world of contemporary classical music. But Mohammed Fairouz has a way of defying expectations: Last May, MSNBC’s Morning Joe presented a segment on the young Arab-American composer — just one indication that Fairouz, only 30 years old, has rapidly become one of the most visible figures in the new-music scene.

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Filed under: American opera, Mohammed Fairouz, new music, Rhapsody

Ghosting in LA

Patricia Racette (Marie Antoinette) and Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais): © Craig Mathew | LA Opera

Patricia Racette (Marie Antoinette) and Christopher Maltman (Beaumarchais): © Craig Mathew | LA Opera

One of the most thrilling evenings I’ve experienced in years at the opera house — at the theater in general — was last weekend’s opening night of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of The Ghosts of Versailles.

Here’s a quick overview of the critical reaction so far:

It’s comic and serious, entertaining and erudite, silly and thoughtful, emotional and mysterious, harrowing and uplifting, intimate and over-the-top — and the more times you see it, the more you’ll find in it and the more you’ll get out of it. It helps to be an opera or history buff to get all of the references, reminiscences and send-ups, but it’s not necessary.

–Richard S, Ginell, Los Angeles Times

James Conlon in the pit showed an absolute mastery of the score and LA Opera Orchestra played like angels for him. Through an evening of very challenging harmonies and swift changes of tempo they alighted on each new melody with precision and a transparency that I hadn’t enjoyed in this work before…

A better performance of this large and complex work couldn’t possibly be hoped for and I can’t express strongly enough what a tremendous experience it was to see live. We were “in the presence of the composer’ last night as they say.

–Patrick Mack, parterre.com

In an achingly beautiful LA Opera production, the ghosts of monarchies and revolutions past materialize before our eyes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We are enveloped in an exquisite postmodern version of Marie Antoinette’s little theatre at Versailles, awash in dusty blues and pearlescent greens. It is the world of John Corigliano’s opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

–Jane Rosenberg, The International Review of Music

It’s all interesting and entertaining if not invariably arresting. Written for the Metropolitan Opera, which gave the premiere in 1991, “Ghosts,” lasting nearly three hours on Saturday, seems rather loosely-knit and bloated. The jokes, pretty good though sometimes fairly broad, don’t always sit right with the ostensibly serious subject matter. When all is said and done, the whole is about as deep as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

–Timothy Mangan, Orange County Register

With an expensive stage set that rivals the royal opera house in Versailles and a large cast that includes a headless Marie Antoinette and a rabid army of French Revolutionaries — as well as an exotic temptress portrayed by a certain Broadway star who enters astride a hot-pink elephant — L.A. Opera’s production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Chandler Pavilion is a visually stunning affair.

–Falling James, LA Weekly

Patricia Racette gives a commanding performance as Marie Antoinette, combining wistfully naïve nostalgia with nightmarish horror.

–Jim Farber, San Francisco Classical Voice

In the end, there wasn’t even enough room on stage! At the curtain call the cast stretched the entire width of it with several getting squeezed out of the final bow. Corigliano’s opera really is larger than life, and, appropriately, the last person brought out was the composer himself. The Ghosts of Versailles, over 20 years after its première, (which was 11 years after it was commissioned) was worth the wait. While the opera isn’t perfect, it is a colossal achievement. William M. Hoffman’s poetic libretto with Corigliano’s evocative fusion of styles makes not only an impressive spectacle of theater, but an opera of intense feeling and LA Opera’s production captures that magic exquisitely. It was a triumph.

–Matthew Richard Martinez, bachtrack.com

Filed under: American opera, directors, John Corigliano, Los Angeles Opera

Love Save the Queen: The Ghosts of Versailles

ghosts-la

This Saturday brings the opening of Los Angeles Opera’s new production of The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano and William Hoffman.
Here’s my essay for LA Opera’s program:

There’s an entire category of landmark operas that originally met with resistance from their own composers. Take Ariadne auf Naxos. In its first version, the work posed so many problems that a frustrated Richard Strauss shelved the project for several years. And when he was approached by director Peter Sellars with the concept for his first opera—a venture tentatively titled Nixon in China—John Adams initially kept a skeptical distance.

The inception of The Ghosts of Versailles couldn’t have offered a more encouraging set of circumstances. Desiring to present a brand-new work to celebrate its upcoming centenary season, the Metropolitan Opera was determined to pull out all the stops. What composer would not leap at the chance—especially given such a spectacular context for his debut opera?

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Filed under: American opera, essay, John Corigliano, Los Angeles Opera

River Walk Renaissance

tobin-center

My feature on the birth of a new company, OPERA San Antonio, appears in the current issue of LISTEN. I can include only the teaser here (the full article is behind a paywall):

In today’s performing arts climate, the launch of a new American opera company is bold enough to seem downright contrarian. But nothing got in the way of OPERA San Antonio’s official inauguration in September with a stylish production of Fantastic Mr. Fox — one of a series of events to ring in the city’s glistening new arts palace on the River Walk, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Tobias Picker’s family-friendly opera, based on the beloved story by Roald Dahl, turned out to be a shrewd choice…

Filed under: American opera, essay, opera, opera companies

Guest Review: World Premiere Staging of The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Mary

I’m deeply grateful to Tom Luce to be able to publish his insightful review of the world premiere of the opera staging of John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Directed by Peter Sellars, the production just opened this past weekend at English National Opera.

Review by Tom Luce:
The Gospel According to the Other Mary
World Premiere Staging of John Adams’s and Peter Sellars’s Masterpiece

On Friday 21 November, English National Opera unveiled its new production of the Adams/Sellars “alternative” version of the crucifixion of Christ. The two-act work, described by its creators as a “Passion Oratorio”, was premiered in a concert performance at Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in May 2012 under Gustavo Dudamel’s baton. The following year came the first semi-staged concert performance, also featuring the LA Philharmonic under Dudamel. That version later toured to New York and Europe (including a stop at London’s Barbican). Dudamel’s interpretation was released on a recording by Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year, so the music has been accessible to the public at large since then.

Directed by Sellars himself, ENO’s production was the work’s first full staging. Along with its two creators, it deservedly received a prolonged ovation from a rapt and obviously much moved audience.

The performance was uniformly excellent, with cast and chorus admirably meeting the challenging mixture of singing, movement, and acting Sellars demands of and inspires from his performers. All the principal singers — Patricia Bardon as Mary Magdalene, Meredith Arwady as Martha, and Russell Thomas the Lazarus — were committed and effective, as were dancers Banks, Stephanie Berge, Ingrid Mackinnon, and Parinay Mehra, who variously shadowed them and contributed other parts to the narrative.

The musical side at ENO was in the hands of Joana Carneiro. Of Portuguese origin, she is better known in the U.S. than in Britain, having for some years been music director of the Berkeley Symphony. Her technical mastery and impassioned commitment to this highly complex score were remarkable. The ENO orchestra played magnificently.

Those familiar with Sellars’ “ritualisations” of the two Bach Passions with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra would find nothing to surprise them in his staging. One hallmark is his use of dance, mime, and body movement to externalise and heighten emotion. “Put your body where your belief is”, he says in the ENO’s introductory video. Another is the subtle intermingling of narrative and representation. The main thrust is narrative, but to heighten impact at critical points in the drama, the narrators act out the events — just as the Evangelist in the Berlin Bach Passions both expounds the story and at times impersonates characters — e.g., Peter in denial, or Christ at his death. This subtle shifting of roles keeps crude dramatisation at bay but facilitates a wide variety of dramatic tone and effects. I have not seen anything comparable in other directors’ work; it is one of Sellars’s most skilful and original attributes.

The stage design by George Tsypin, subtly lit by James Ingalls, is spare but eloquent: sand and barbed wire represent a Middle East riven by conflict and oppression, simultaneously biblical and contemporary.

The work juxtaposes and fuses ancient and modern in presenting Mary and Martha as running a hostel for homeless, impoverished, and marginalised people, with Jesus as a mixture of family friend, honoured guest, and spiritual patron. He is also a miracle worker in the raising of their dead brother Lazarus, sacrificial victim of the elites whose power he challenges, and a source of hope for the future of the world.

The literary sources are the Bible — especially St John’s Gospel — supplemented and re-interpreted through modern American cultural figures: poet and author Louise Erdrich, who is partially of native American descent; Dorothy Day of the radical Catholic Worker movement; Rosario Castellanos, the Mexican writer, activist, and diplomat; and the black poet June Jordan (who wrote the libretto for an earlier Adams/Sellars collaboration, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky).

In the ENO video Sellars also says: “The moment you feminize Christianity and you go into feminine spirituality, you go into a very different space and it operates very differently”. It is of the essence in Sellars’s dramatic work that he sees the cultural myths we have inherited through women’s eyes. This is as much an emotional and dramatic as a political standpoint.

The main originality of his St Matthew Passion ritualisation lies in its inspiration and liberation in the listener and viewer of wider and wilder feelings going well beyond the conventional liturgical responses or the “authentic” musical response to a deeper human involvement in the passion of Christ and its human and political significance. In doing so he responds to the injunction in the very first line of the work: “Come, ye daughters, help me lament”. (The discreet presence in the audience of Mark Padmore, the Evangelist in the Berlin Passions, at Friday’s Gospel premiere served to underline the connection between the Bach and Adams ventures.)

John Adams’s music reaches new levels of emotional profundity, dramatic responsiveness, and absence of mannerism, going even beyond his achievement in The Death of Klinghoffer. There is an extraordinary richness and flexibility of harmony and melody and a fascinating orchestral sound, to which a cimbalom gives an exotic edge without ever sounding kitschy. Amongst many fine moments, the most deeply moving for me is the aria with which the first act ends, sung by Lazarus after the Passover evening: “Tell me, how is this night different? … This is the night we eat the bread of affliction so that evil may turn into good”. Within an orchestral palette evoking a kind of Nachtmusik, Adams here creates a deep and movingly optimistic reflection on the events of the opera. Over many years I have heard nothing finer from a contemporary composer.

With this production English National Opera cements its standing as the world’s most committed John Adams house, having previously mounted Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic and having originated the Klinghoffer production admired recently at the Met.

The work itself will surely take a high place in the canon of works from the last century or so in which great composers address themes of human injustice and inequality. It will be alongside Tippett’s A Child Of Our Time (1944) and his The Knot Garden (1970), an opera featuring a female revolutionary fighter and a mixed-race/same-gender couple, which sadly seems to have slipped out of the repertoire in recent years); Hans Werner Henze’s dramatic cantata The Raft of Medusa; and above all Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Its full unveiling at last week’s premiere was an event of real significance.

Tom Luce lives in London and Seattle. He has followed musical events for over 50 years. He wrote music reviews for Seattle’s Crosscut.com.

Filed under: American opera, Bach, culture news, directors, John Adams, new music, opera

John Adams at ENO: The Other Mary

Mary

The full opera staging of John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary premieres tonight at English National Opera in London, in a production directed by the brilliant Peter Sellars (recently named Musical America’s Artist of the Year).

Here’s a clip with Peter Sellars and John Adams discussing the work:

http://www.eno.org/gospel

Filed under: American music, American opera, John Adams, opera

A Touch of Ghosts

I can’t wait for the new production of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles coming in January at Los Angeles Opera — part of the company’s upcoming Figaro Trilogy that will include the iconic Mozart and Rossini operas based on the plays of Beaumarchais.

The composer on style, from an extensive interview with Bruce Duffie:

I don’t write in any one style. That is important. I feel I do not approach a piece thinking of any style at all, but I evolve the style when I know what I have to write for that piece. If you listen to the “Pied Piper” and the Clarinet Concerto and the Oboe Concerto — which are three woodwind concertos — you’ll see that they’re totally and completely different from each other. I use style in a different way. I tend to think of style as a variable. I do have stylistic things that come back — certain intervals, certain kinds of progressions, certain sonorities, that I use because they’re part of me. That is an unconscious style. But as far as the idea of style as it exists in music today, in which one associates a sonority or a sound or a total piece with somebody, and he writes the next piece in that style and the next piece in that style, as Brahms did, I don’t feel I’m that kind of composer.

Here’s a little teaser of costume sketches.

Filed under: aesthetics, American opera, composers, Los Angeles Opera

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