The Boston Phoenix
March 16 - 23, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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What next?

Elliott Carter's first opera

by Lloyd Schwartz

"I can't really imagine an opera by Elliott Carter," a friend responded to my invitation to meet me at Carnegie Hall for the East Coast premiere of our greatest living composer's brand new one-act opera, What Next? Carter must have secured his place in the Guinness Book of Records three years ago, when he started to compose his very first opera at the age of 88 (Verdi was approaching 80 when he completed his last one, Falstaff). He told the audience at the pre-performance talk that he had always wanted to write an opera but that he was waiting to find a situation that convinced him it should be sung. Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, who commissioned What Next?, gave the world premiere in Berlin last September. It had its American premiere in Chicago two weeks ago, in a concert version; then Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brought it to New York. Performances are already scheduled at Glyndebourne, Paris, and Amsterdam -- though not yet in Boston.

In fact, Carter has been writing "operas-without-voices" for more than half a century. Both his chamber music (especially his string quartets) and his larger symphonic works are really "character" pieces, in which individual instruments or instrumental sections, sometimes playing at drastically different tempos from one another, each represent an attitude, a point of view, a "humor" -- a character. Like dramatis personae, they argue, or make love, or have spiritual crises. Carter's knotty Duo for Violin and Piano, dedicated to his wife, Helen, seems to be a portrait of their marriage, a depiction of two opposite personalities (one "bow-stroked," for instance, the other "key-struck").

Carter has always expressed his love for opera. Among his central models, he has often listed the banquet scene from Don Giovanni, with its three on-stage orchestras, and that opera's final sextet, as well as the multi-level Tomb Scene from Aida and the famous sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor. What Next?, then, is an inevitable -- though long delayed -- theatrical embodiment of Carter's deeply ingrained approach to one of the fundamental possibilities of music: the simultaneous, interactive expression of intricate, tangled emotions.

Elliott Carter's first opera What Next? is also a sextet. The libretto, by British novelist and New York Times music critic Paul Griffiths, might be called "Six Characters in Search of an Opera." And it couldn't be anything but sung. These characters have been in some kind of catastrophe, like a car accident. At a pre-performance talk with Griffiths and Carnegie Hall artistic adviser Ara Guzelimian, Carter said that one of the inspirations for What Next? was the car-crash scene in the Jacques Tati comedy Traffic. Neither Carter nor Griffiths wanted to commit himself to resolving the story's ambiguities, though Griffiths denied Guzelimian's theory that the characters might be already dead.

The opera begins with the characters coming to, an awakening in which they try to sort out who they are and where they were going. Is Rose, the self-absorbed coloratura soprano who hardly ever stops singing, on the way to her wedding with the clownish "Harry or Larry" (this is how he's listed)? Is she pregnant with his child? An older woman, who once had a husband and a son, might be "Harry or Larry" 's mother. Was she once married to the blathering philosopher named Zen? Is Stella, a learned astronomer, Zen's new girlfriend? Zen and Stella are opposites, like the violin and the piano in Duo -- one obsessed with measuring a fixed universe, the other trusting to chance, probabilities, "accident." And there's a hungry young boy, "Kid," who's dying for a Big Mac.

What Next? literally begins with a bang -- a violent but elegant explosion from the almost comically extensive battery of percussion instruments (including large and small suspended trashcans and four brake drums). The singers seem to be shushing or hissing, as if air were leaking out of a tire. Their sibilance soon turns into the beginning of the word "star" -- or some form of it, each "star" word reflecting the character who utters it: "starts," "startle," "starling" (which triggers the diva's first string of coloratura roulades), "starch" (from practical Mama), "starkest" (from "serious" Stella), "starving" (from Kid).

Carter at leisure The sounding-out of these delicate syllables, like ethereal vocal warm-ups, is the first of Carter's many exquisite details. The vocal lines are not what most people would call melodic (Carter gave up traditional "melody" years ago), but they range from the most jaggedly edgy and chattering to the long-breathed and lyrical, like Mama's lovely, calming, beautifully scored "Hush now" ("We have to begin with the last thing we can remember/How else to go on?") or Stella's outer-spacy apostrophe to "Sirius, Sirius," which is hard to distinguish from "Serious, serious."

Carter's scoring is transparent. He sets the text with the most natural inflection, so you can make out nearly all the words. In the middle of the opera, most of the characters suddenly leave the stage. "It's a relief to have a moment in which there isn't the constant interplay of singers," Carter said, explaining this extraordinary interlude. This is called in the libretto "The Singing Stage," and the orchestra plays one of the most ravishing instrumental passages Carter has ever written: a haunting nocturne, marked Tranquillo, with a wreathing solo for English horn. The stage direction here says: "It is also possible that some of the debris could begin to move, as if of its own accord."

The Carnegie Hall performance seemed impeccable, though the semi-staging wasn't particularly helpful. The marvelous Chicago Symphony, with its eloquent winds (especially the otherworldly English-horn playing of Grover Schiltz), colorful brasses (those surprisingly woozy slide trombones), and brilliant percussionists (two of them portraying road workers in orange jackets and hard hats), seemed to be having a field day. Barenboim humorously introduced the audience to each character ("She's never off duty," he commented about Rose's relentless vocalization), who then emerged and sang a characteristic phrase. "Quite a crowd, isn't it?" Barenboim remarked.

The international cast was impressive. Even on a concert stage the singers were thoroughly in character, and they sang from memory (most of them appeared in the Berlin world premiere). The German soprano Simone Nold was a vocally brilliant and theatrically knowing Rose ("Would you like an autograph? A photograph?"). Baritone cut-up Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a punkish, sarcastic Harry -- or Larry. Their "American" English was as clear as the diction of the native English speakers: full-toned British soprano Lynn Dawson, the moving, concerned Mama; nougat-voiced low contralto Hilary Summers, the comically austere Stella; and American tenor William Joyner, the pompously profound Zen. Young boy soprano Michael John Devine is the only singer who wasn't a member of the original cast, yet he too was authoritative, funny, and touching.

There are darker undercurrents to the comedy, of course. This is an opera about the precariousness of existence, about personal miscommunication, about generosity of spirit at war with self-centeredness, though ego may be a necessary part of genius. Before the end there's a touching, though tentative, temporary reconciliation. It's also an opera about making art, about words and music, about itself. "Starts are always an embarrassment to us. . . . Each beginning is a only a new illusion," Zen announces -- and you can't help thinking of the 91-year-old composer starting a new project. "Wherever we go, words have been there first/We open a door into what we think will be a new room only to find the carpet threadbare." "Somewhere or other," Harry -- or Larry -- tells Rose, the opera singer, "You'll need to find words of your own."

Griffiths's intelligent, often gently witty libretto is also a little too schematic, too quasi-allegorical for its own good (like -- though perhaps not quite as heavy-handed as -- Michael Tippett's clumsy concoctions for his own operas). The characters fall a little too easily into stereotype (the Operatic Diva, the Aging Hippie, the Caring Mother), so they're hard to care much about. Griffiths himself, at the pre-concert talk, said he found the characters "obnoxious," though he felt "quite affectionate" toward them too. In concert, the libretto rather got in the way of the music -- something didn't quite jell. It was hard to take in the relation between words and music. Surely it would help to see a complete staging.

Still, Carter's score has 45 minutes of his freshest, most inventive, most beautiful, and most youthful music. This composer's phenomenal capacity to surprise and delight never stops. He's already planning another opera. What next?

There are times when I think that even New York couldn't measure up to the riches of Boston's musical life. But at the moment it's hard to imagine anything more exciting than what's happening in New York. Last week, the new Carter opera. At Carnegie Hall this week, Pierre Boulez, the greatest living conductor (by miles) and hero of Modernism, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Maurizio Pollini and violinist Christian Tetzlaff, in a four-concert series of 20th-century masters (Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Ligeti, Berio, and Boulez himself) and four US premieres by European composers seldom heard in this country. Next month, at the New York State Theatre, Mark Morris's celebrated production of Rameau's Platée, and Lorraine Hunt, singing one of her greatest roles, in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, at the New York City Opera. (Granted she sang it in Boston first, but only in concert.) How could anyone who loves classical music bear to be anywhere else?
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