Posts Tagged “opera”
Manhattan in Charcoal
Jacob Miller – Libretto
Manhattan in Charcoal is a newly released CD from Composers Concordance Records and distributed by Naxos. This is a chamber opera with the libretto written by the poet Jacob Miller and music composed by Gene Pritsker. The story is about “The life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st century who is struggling to find his way…” Manhattan in Charcoal is a powerfully dark work whose strength is equally derived from the poetry and the music.
The first movement starts with The Village Feels Empty and the music evokes just the right atmosphere – a sustained trombone tone with a moving bass line underneath. Woodwinds and brass hold higher, dissonant tones, while a running piano scale is heard cutting through the texture. Now violins add a dark shadow, and the image of a rainy night in Manhattan is complete. The narrator – librettist Jacob Miller, perfectly cast – begins his story.
The story line of Manhattan in Charcoal is about a painter – the Artist – who is struggling to make an impression in the uptown galleries while at the same time maintaining a balanced relationship with his girlfriend Beatrice, who is jealous of his devotion to his art. The music in the opening scene reflects this tension, but dissolves into warm harmony when the Artist invites Beatrice to look outside the window. They sing “Art is everywhere, Beatrice – come look at the streets…” Later the Artist tries to assure Beatrice with the words: “But there is and has always, been only you.” – this is sung as a lovely duet and it seems as if Beatrice is almost convinced.
Meanwhile the Artist, always struggling for money, begins his latest work, ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’ – envisioned in paint at first, but later reduced to a more affordable charcoal and paper. Outsider Art opens Movement 2, and the music to describe this slowly unfolding process is heavy and complex as the Artist struggles to adapt to the unfamiliar technique. As the drawing nears completion, plans advance to show it in a gallery and when this occurs the Narrator describes the exhibition, backed by a wonderfully jazzy groove that projects success and sophistication.
A lively piece opens Movement 3 – Art Dealers Dance – and this captures the mundane and banal demands of those who simply want to make money from the success of an artist. Just the Way I Draw is all horns, woodwinds and brass – bouncy and light – the perfect allegory for the airy pronouncements by the critics. The Artist has gained some notoriety from ‘Manhattan in Charcoal’, but his sudden celebrity has attracted the attentions of another woman, and Beatrice senses a rival. This leads to the crisis and denouement of the opera. In the final scene the libretto and music are masterfully matched in a beautiful collage of woodwinds, voices and percussion that is very moving.
The lead singers in this recording – baritone Charles Coleman as the Artist, and soprano Lynn Norris, as Beatrice, give a skillful and precise reading of the sometimes angular and uneven phrases. The accompanying musicians provide a polished and well-balanced support, effectively evoking the many different moods that are woven through this work.
This opera is described in the liner notes as “… the life and loves of an artist in New York City in the early days of the 21st Century…”, but there is no plot device having to do with cell phones or email. Rather, Manhattan in Charcoal is the timeless story of artists and lovers, beautifully told here in poetry and music.
Manhattan in Charcoal will be released in May 2015 and the CD will be available from Naxos.
A short video featuring some of the music is here.
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Song from the Uproar
Abigail Fischer and the NOW Ensemble
New Amsterdam Records
- Abigail Fischer – Isabelle Eberhardt
- Celine Mogielnicki, Amelia Watkins, Kate Maroney, Tomas Cruz, and Peter Stewart (other voices)
- Sara Budde, clarinet & bass clarinet
- Logan Coale, double bass
- Mark Dancigers, electric guitar
- Michael Mizrahi, piano
- Alexandra Sopp, flute & piccolo
- Steven Osgood, conductor
Missy Mazzoli’s opera Song from the Uproar is proof positive that opera is alive and well in the world. A true 21st century production incorporating a lean number of performers and simple yet hauntingly effect electronics, Song from the Uproar also draws upon the basic core of operatic storytelling: expressive emotional content. While the musical foundation of Song from the Uproar is postminimalism, Mazzoli’s music has a gloriously expressive surface to pair with Uproar’s rhythmic/harmonic engines.
The opera works exceedingly well as one continuous hour-long work but the piece also breaks into component “numbers” rather nicely. I have found myself listening to “You Are the Dust” quite a lot, actually, with its gorgeous melodic line, pulsating electric guitar delay and high double bass. Abigail Fischer’s voice on this particular track, and throughout the whole opera, has a dense mournful quality. Fischer’s sound is as complex as her character. There is a lot of heavy drama in the story and it would be easy to focus on the bleak and mopey tragedies Isabelle Eberhardt experienced. Fortunately, Mazzoli is a lot smarter than that. The excitement Eberhardt felt on her adventures spawned moments like “I Have Arrived,” a mostly instrumental segment brimming with bright and infectious energy. Mazzoli treats the small ensemble of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano in such a way that maximizes color and sonic potential. You’d swear that there are a lot more people playing. Mazzoli has worked with NOW before and that familiarity with their sound pays off well. Similarly, musical ideas in Song from the Uproar have been explored by Mazzoli before in other pieces. One such example is that the final scene of the opera appears as “The Diver” on Victoire’s Cathedral City album. The time and attention Mazzoli has put into crafting this opera shows.
I went ahead and got one of the “Deluxe Limited Editions” available from Mazzoli’s Bandcamp page. The whole package includes the complete libretto with additional imagery from filmaker Stephen S. Taylor and a DVD, not of a staged performance, but rather an abstract accompanying film also created by Taylor. Taylor uses old black-and-white film to create a sort of “visual sense memory” of Eberhardt’s life and world. A sample of this footage can be found in the video for “You Are the Dust.” I enjoyed the progression of visual imagery as it evolved throughout the opera and Taylor’s choices flexed between “on the nose” and “abstractly poetic” in a compelling way. Still, I want a video of a fully staged performance of Song from the Uproar. It deserves one.
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The Mimesis Ensemble
Scott Dunn, conductor
- Mabrouka: Jo Ellen Miller
- Asakir: Rachel Calloway
- Sumeida: Robert Mack
- Alwan: Mischa Bouvier
Sumeida’s Song, Mohammed Fairouz’s first opera, is based on the play Song of Death by Tawfiq al-Hakim. This story of a young man returning home and facing a long-standing family feud was adapted by Fairouz, as well, and the relatively plain language does well at communicating the major plot points. The music is very Stravinskian with punctuated orchestral rhythms, little ostinato figures, and slightly boxy tonal mechanics. The growth of microtonal colors in the third scene, however, is rather refreshing and engaging. I was surprised at the overall lack of ethnic-derived music given that the Egyptian setting and culture are strongly tied to the plot. I’m not asking for cliches or tastelessness, of course, but the relatively unspecific music suggests that the story could be happening anywhere. I suspect that the musical intent might be to make the story more of a generalize parable (since the story of sacrificing oneself for peace is a relatively universal ideal).
While Sumeida is in the title, this opera belongs to Rachel Calloway as Asakir. Present in almost every scene, this opera seems to be so much more about her than the title character but the libretto never really generates any sympathy for her. Calloway’s rich and powerful tone sounds like it has potential for great tenderness and nuance but the tone of this particular character never gets away from “angry evil shrew.” Her character’s edge is always present in her voice, never giving way to softness, and I would have enjoyed hearing Calloway’s dark sound in a more soothing melodic ground.
Overall, the music is a chain of solos with almost no ensemble singing whatsoever. I found most of the melodic lines emotionally flat with few resonating moments. Alwan’s lines “I won’t kill” towards the end of the second scene are punctuated with highly traditional harmonic cadences, for example. The ensuring argument builds up has wild energy and vibrant orchestration, I just find the drama uncompelling. This is always difficult when listening to an opera (instead of seeing it). All the motions that are happening on the stage could do much to heighten the impact.
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The Fool / The Death of Enkidu
Singers: Tamara Hummel (s), Sandra Graham (m/s), Darryl Edwards (t), Gary Relyea (b/bt) (The Fool)
Amanda Parsons (actor), Julie Nesrallah (m/s), Martin Houtman (t), David Pomeroy (t), Doug Macnaughton (b/bt), Alain Coulombe (b) (Death of Enkidu)
Conductors: David Currie (The Fool), Les Dala (Death of Enkidu)
This is part of Cenrediscs’ ongoing recording project commemorating Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999). Somers came under the influence of the contemporary avante-garde early in his studies in his native Toronto (1942) in the person of John Weinzweig, who encouraged him to study traditional harmony as well as introducing him to 12-tone serial composition (presumably in order to thoroughly learn the rules he was to break). After the war, he studied for a time under Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen. As Somers was to describe this period of his life: “Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.”
Now, what about the two 40-minute chamber operas in the present 2-CD set? Briefly, The Fool is about a court jester who refuses to have his soaring spirit circumscribed by either convention or royal decree and falls to his death when attempting to fly from the castle battlements on his own homemade wings. (Presumably, this is the plight of the poor, misunderstood creative artist in modern society). The Death of Enkidu takes its inspiration from the ancient Chaldean epic of Gilgamesh. It deals, in flashback, with the downfall of the man-beast Enkidu, who had been happily running with a pack of wolves before the tyrant Gilgamesh sent a harlot to seduce him so that he would become more pliable to his plans for conquest following his loss of innocence. The Fool and Enkidu will be seen as stylized, non-naturalistic dramas that are philosophical, even existentialist, in thrust. They seem to reflect contemporary trends in the theatre in the 1950’s that came to be known as “Theatre of the Absurd” and “Theatre of Cruelty.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed listening to either work. Whether or not you describe Somers’ writing as “scale-like material with a strong tonal pull,” it is not at all euphonious. In fact, it is hard to talk about melody or harmony at all in the context of these works (believe me, it’s nothing you’d want to hum or sing in the shower). They suffer from the common limitation of most modern attempts to write English-language opera in that they tend to rely on heightened speech patterns in place of a true vocal vocabulary. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we have no real bel canto tradition such as other languages have (There are, of course, vibrant folk and popular song traditions in various English-speaking countries, but contemporary composers have generally shown little interest in them). The result is a strained, declamatory style of operatic writing that many listeners (myself included) find most unattractive. In Death of Enkidu, this style reaches an extreme in the tortured, syllabic, hiccoughing delivery of the narrator and the equally mannered vocal writing for the hero, which incorporates wolf calls into a generally aphasic mix. There is a Chorus of three soldiers, who seem oblivious to Enkidu’s dilemma as the noble savage who has “sold out” to Gilgamesh and is thus uncomfortable in either the animal world or the human. Instead, they mostly complain about the harshness of their life in a desolate foreign land and how they long to return to their own country (which corresponds to modern-day Iraq, so you know things must really be bad). This may be alienation indeed, but it isn’t either good theatre or treasurable opera.
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