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.