THE CRITICS: PC plod in search of great American opera
1995 Edinburgh Festival MUSIC I WAS LOOKING AT THE CEILING: Royal Lyceum THE JACOBIN: Festival Theatre RUSLAN AND LYUDMILA: Usher Hall
Sunday 20 August 1995
But the first music theatre on the 1995 programme has been an example of inverse glamour: a new piece called I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky with a synopsis that reads like a Guinness Book of Records entry for the number of socio-ethnic Issuessqueezed into one libretto. In the opening scene a single-parent political refugee from El Salvador is counselled by a social worker in a family-planning clinic (cue: song about condoms). A little later her culturally-oppressed black boyfriend gets arrested by a closet-gay policeman who is failing to relate to his career-driven quasi-girlfriend ... and so it goes on. Heavily. Set in Los Angeles, the piece comes out of the US, where its premiere was greeted (not too enthusiastically) as a Hair for the 1990s. But the comparison is wide of the mark.
Ceiling/Sky is in fact another, faltering step towards a defining form of all-American opera. It is also the latest collaboration between John Adams, composer, and Peter Sellars, producer, the partnership responsible for the most successful and apparently durable recent forays in that direction, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. Like both those pieces, this is documentary-opera, with a plot that turns around the actual event of a Los Angeles earthquake: a force majeure that shakes up the lives of the protagonists and imposes some kind of resolution on their various problems. But unlike Nixon and Klinghoffer, the characters here are neither historical nor epic. They are voices from the street, and the music Adams gives them is accordingly vernacular. It feeds the story through a sequence of 22 songs, each one a self-contained scene that leans heavily on rock, gospel, Motown or Broadway precedents. The effect is, if anything, a Mahagonny songspiel for the Nineties: a revisitation of the sort of moral cabaret with wide address that Brecht and Weill developed earlier in the century.
But Ceiling/Sky is also an uptown take on Stephen Sondheim, and shares the persistent flaw in Sondheim's work of having a pay-off that doesn't live up to the very elaborate preparations laid for it. When the earthquake comes you feel the shock (thanks to some impressive electro-acoustical effects) but the supposed impact on the inner lives of the stage characters is unconvincing. It needs more time, care and better words than the bathetic, cliche-ridden rhymes of June Gordon's libretto. It's a paradox of the writing that, while most of the songs last too long, the whole piece ends too soon, like a train that stops before the station.
As for the score, you won't find much here that Adams hasn't tried before, beyond a yearning for a hit tune. The orchestration (for eight-piece band) relies on synthesised sound and phased repetition: the high-art equivalent of Broadway vamp. Theatrically it's what you'd expect from Peter Sellars: a feisty cocktail-with-a-kick of the occasionally inspired and largely slapdash. But despite all this, Ceiling/Sky has a subversive appeal that somehow overrides its doubtful virtues. The songs and rhythmic games are memorable, addictive; I liked them more than I wanted to. And the performances - from a small, tight company of American actor-singers - are superbly from the gut, if not always the heart. There is also the curiosity of the elite, Finnish, contemporary-music ensemble Avanti! in the pit, adapting magnificently to the idiom and helping to persuade my ear at least that there may be something in it all: that Adams and Sellars may just have hit on a new and reconciliatory theatrical formula which touches the nerve of our time. But whatever its portent, the present Ceiling/Sky needs tidying up.
So, I'm afraid, does Scottish Opera's new production of Dvorak's The Jacobin. Dvorak is the featured composer at Edinburgh this year, and The Jacobin has been absent from British repertory for far too long. Of all the composer's 11 operas, it is the most overtly and exuberantly Czech National (something Dvorak was never too sure about), with a strong folk element and a relentless, driven, forward-thrust of melody that camouflages the considerable length of the first two acts. Richard Armstrong conducts with unflagging energy, and the orchestral sound is good. But dear me, it's miscast. Apart from Stafford Dean as the old Count, none of the singers suit their roles. And the production, by Christine Mielitz, is at best dutiful, at worst a bore, with none of the sharpness of detail it would take for the comedy to live. That the action seems to beplaced underground in an oppressively Wagnerian grotto isn't helpful.
A glance at the supernumerary cast requirements for Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila - knights, nobles, immured maidens, blackamoors, dwarfs, nymphs, water-sprites - explains why the piece rarely surfaces outside Russia and why no one here knows it except for the overture. But Ruslan is a remarkable, if prolix, score which effectively founded the tradition of epic-romantic fantasy in 19th-century Russian opera. Less commendably, it also established the practice of doctoring racily ironic Pushkin poems into deadly earnest theatre: roughly four hours' worth if the text is done complete. But Thursday's concert performance, a touring package from Valery Gergiev and his Kirov ensemble, swept home in three-and-a- half, with some judicious cuts and exhilarating tempi that knocked the rambling cherchez-la-femme narrative (Ruslan is a quest for a repeatedly abducted wife) into unexpected shape. As always with travelling Kirov shows, the voices were stronger on presence and excitement than on discipline, but with one or two instruments of outstanding quality among them, especially the sopranos Marina Shaguch and Galina Gorchakova. Gergiev, as always, ruled the show with a pragmatic sense of purpose that wasn't thrown when things occasionally fell out of place. And there'll be more of him next week.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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