Saturday, December 03, 2005

What "Tragedy"?

Well, after the Romeo debacle, it is nice to see the Met can produce some real art when it sets its mind to it: tonight's "American Tragedy" premiere was a classy and deeply satisfying experience both musically and theatrically.

Picker's score flows from a familiar enough contemporary opera sound, but only as a starting point. He builds on that language to construct a piece of wonderful variation, from haunting little sound worlds evoking period styles to climaxes of terrifying intensity to quiet passages of rich lyricism.

The musical drama uses the orchestra to full effect, imbuing the sparingly constructed, plainspoken libretto with a hundred different shades of dread and longing. In this way, Picker produces some scenes of really cutting dramatic power--the final scene of the first act, for instance, in which Roberta reveals her pregnancy and demands that Clyde marry her is truly pit of the stomach disturbing.

And there are vocal passages of exquisite beauty as well. A soaring, exceedingly dense first Act trio between the principles made me think of the ecstatic ensembles in Der Rosenkavalier.

I don't really feel like quibbling with it now, but I did think the courtroom scene in Act II a bit of a miscalculation that kills the pacing.

As for the cast, all I have to say hot diz-amn. You just have to step back and marvel at what a remarkably consistent collection of singers has been assembled here. I mean, would contemporary opera really get snubbed if it meant an opportunity to experience artists like these demonstrating such a thrilling commitment to their work? Zajick simply sets shit ON FIRE with her pillar of sound, as of this writing still bouncing around inside my head. Graham is the consummate artist, disposing of her part with an uncommon level of beauty and refinement. Racette's marvelous noise drives you to distraction like a shriek in the night distilled to its molten silver essence. And Nathan "The Body" Gunn sings this music with the kind of penetrating, engaging intelligence that demonstrates over and over what nuance the art form is capable of at its best.

And all this played out against a production design that manages to be inventive, distinctive, and light on its feet. Its naturally too soon to give a final verdict on Picker's opera, but it does seem safe to say this is a piece, and a production, that is a very good sign for big-time contemporary opera indeed.

Update: The 'sphere serves up (fairly) mad props for last night's premiere. Check it: Sieglinde and JSU.

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