Saturday, February 5, 2011

Musical Histories

A scene from Nixon in China (photo by Alastair Muir)

Nixon in China (1987)
Composed by John Adams
Metropolitan Opera
February 2, 5, 9, 12, 15, 19, 2011

Berenice (1909)
Composed by Alberic Magnard
American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
January 30, 2011

Knickerbocker Holiday (1938)
Composed by Kurt Weill
Collegiate Chorale at Alice Tully Hall
January 25-26, 2011

In an odd coincidence, a trio of musical works dealing with historical events recently graced New York stages: John Adams’ first opera, another by forgotten French composer Alberic Magnard, and Kurt Weill’s second Broadway musical.

The Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China—conducted by the composer himself in his long-awaited Met debut—was long overdue, considering it’s been performed around the world, including Brooklyn, where Adams’ operas have long been presented.

Like The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic (which did come to the Met in 2008), Nixon in China examines relatively recent historic events, in this case President Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 visit to China. Alice Goodman’s poetic libretto takes imaginative liberties, with scenes of Nixon (the excellent James Maddalena) meeting Chairman Mao (a riveting Robert Brubaker), First Lady Pat Nixon (an impressive Janis Kelly) touring the area and the Nixons attending the performance of a ballet conceived by Madame Mao (a mesmerizing turn by Kathleen Kim).

There’s wit and humor without condescension in the characterizations, and Adams’ music—although reliant on the minimalism’s mind-numbing repetitions—melodically rises to the occasion in the soaring vocal lines for the soloists and mighty Met Chorus. Holding it together is Peter Sellars’ savvy staging, which weds the big picture of history with intimately scaled drama.

Except for Debussy’s masterpiece Pelleas et Mélisande, late 19th/early 20th century French operas are rarely heard. Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra, which have presented concerts of Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue and Edouard Lalo’s Le roi d’Y’s, unveiled another specimen, Alberic Magnard’s Berenice, in its U.S. premiere a century after its world premiere.

Magnard’s opera is based on Racine’s play about the end of the ancient Queen of Judea’s love affair with Roman emperor Titus. Magnard’s stately, pageant-like music is the aural equivalent of the classical writing of the great French playwright, who avoids overt politics by concentrating on their relationship. It might sound like an underwhelming Tristan und Isolde, but that sells Magnard’s music short. Listening to his four underrated symphonies will make even an inattentive listener aware that Magnard is an orchestral force to be reckoned with.

Botstein, the orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale put across the music well enough, as did the singers. Baritone Brian Mulligan tried hard to sound stentorian as Titus but came across stiffly, bass Gregory Reinhart declaimed nobly as the general Mucien, and veteran mezzo Margaret Lattimore decently sang Lia, Berenice’s handmaiden. Mezzo Michaela Martens, in the title role, acquitted herself admirably if unevenly, slow to warm up but hitting her stride in the vocally taxing climax. More Magnard—including his opera Guercoeur—please!

Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday, though heavy on dated jokes, still has pertinent political points to make in its story of Governor Pieter Stuyvesant of old Dutch New Amsterdam, whose tyrannical ways drew the ire of the early colonists. The plot’s anti-incumbent fervor resonates today (someone behind me muttered “Bloomberg” in disgust), but happily Maxwell Anderson’s book wasn’t milked for more obvious parallels.

“September Song” is the best-known tune, but the whole score floats effervescently along on Weill’s melodies. James Bagwell conducted the splendid American Symphony Orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale. Of the on-target soloists, Kelli O’Hara was in terrific voice while singing, but her coy line readings were a drawback; the evening‘s other name, Victor Garber, mixed comic fun and camp as Stuyvesant. If this and The Firebrand of Florence—which was performed in 2009—are any indication, then more Weill should be on the Collegiate Chorale’s schedule.

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