Watching Olga Neuwirth’s opera Lost Highway is like watching a Harry Potter movie after having read the book: the material transfers all right, but one wishes the team behind the retelling had gone further in re-imagining the original work for a new medium. Lost Highway follows David Lynch’s movie more or less scene for scene: many images from the film get repeated on stage, and many lines from the screenplay find their way – sometimes awkwardly – into the libretto (written by Neuwirth and Elfriede Jelinek). Neuwirth’s principal musical conceit is to have Fred and Renee – the dull, troubled couple – speak their lines, while Pete and Alice – the sexy, transformed version of the same couple – sing theirs. This sounds promising in the program notes, but in reality Neuwirth doesn’t follow through: the majority of the lines in the opera – including those belonging to Pete and Alice – are spoken. What lines are sung come across often as labored and sluggish, rather than fantastical and intense. Neuwirth adopts a highly melismatic approach to setting the text, and this approach, while it blends well with her very ambient score, has the undesirable consequence of suddenly retarding the action on stage. Seeing as many of the most emotive and seemingly “operatic” lines are spoken, one wonders how and why she really chose what to have sung.

But still: Lost Highway is by no means a bad time. My comments above notwithstanding, the show in general moves along with sure-footed efficiency, and the often very short scenes rarely close without making an impact. There is also much to admire in Neuwirth’s music. The murky electronic burble that underscores most of the action recedes nicely at many times to reveal a sardonic choir of brass instruments, or an intimate set of strings. She even manages to sneak in some amusingly “American” sounding bluesiness and to capture the peculiar, dreamy dread that is Lynch’s trademark. And her decision to make Robert Blake’s “Mystery Man” a countertenor is a touch of genius. I didn’t get, however, the extended quotation from The Threepenny Opera early in the show. Nor can I imagine an explanation that would convince me this was the right time for a little haranguing from Bertolt Brecht.

The Oberlin Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble did a splendid job in the pit, and certainly this entire project does that wonderful school proud. But if composers, artists, or playwrights are to do justice to David Lynch, they must be as imaginative as he is. Neuwirth and Jelinek might have done better by dropping the original screenplay altogether, throwing together a libretto by riffing spontaneously on Lynch’s images, themes, and language, and turning Lost Highway into a wild fantasy on a wild fantasy. What we have instead is something much more literal-minded, and, therefore, something not especially faithful to the original material at all.

3 Responses to “Dispatch from The Miller: Lost Highway”
  1. Matt Carlson says:

    This review is pretty close to what I thought. I kept wanting them to take it further over the top, mostly in terms of staging and pacing. A literal translation of Lynch is something that I don’t think works easily on the stage. What makes Lynch most powerful is the surreal imagery, and I think you have to work extra hard to make that happen on the stage. The only 2 scenes that have stuck in my mind are the ones where they added things that weren’t in the film: the Kubrick-masks at the dance party, and the psychotic extended anti-smoking monologue by Mr. Eddy–who I thought was brilliant in creating a role distinct from the Robert Loggia gangster from the film.

  2. Alex Ross says:

    I’m pretty much in agreement, David. A lot of the time it seemed like college kids reenacting scenes from the movie with instrumental accompaniment. I was thoroughly intrigued for the first twenty minutes or so, and then I began to be bothered by a lack of variety and narrative momentum. (I know, I know, it’s supposed to be “enigmatic and labyrinthine.”) But for any number of ear-tingling passages — especially the Olga Neuwirth Techno Danceparty — it was worth seeing. The Oberlin players were fantastic. Something’s kaputt with my blog, I’ll write something when it’s up and running.

  3. Brent Miller says:

    You should check out the CD that Kairos just released (0012542KA). There were a lot of electronic vocal alterations that weren’t there because the sound designer thought he could ‘enhance’ the MAX patches.

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