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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Opera Review: An Imitation of Life

Kommilitonen! has its U.S. premiere at Juilliard.
Party all the time: the Communist officials from Act II of Kommilitonen!
Photo provided by the Juilliard School. © 2010 Blind Summit Theatre.
Kommilitonen!, the eighth opera from British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is an uncompromising look at the effects of student protests and oppression in the 20th century. But no one could have predicted the political circumstance surrounding its premiere in New York City on Wednesday night.

The premiere happened one day after the New York Police Department, acting under orders from Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to "evict" the Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park. The action resulted in 200 arrests, journalists being beaten, and the destruction of the protestors' property, including books, laptop computers and musical instruments. Sometimes, art imitates life.

David Pountney's libretto ties three historical incidents together:
  • 1943: the White Rose resistance in Hitler's Germany and the executions of activists Joseph and Sophie Scholl. Their student newsletter gives the opera its title.

  • 1962: the race riots that accompanied the enrollment of James Meredith, the first African-American to attend the University of Mississippi.

  • 1966: the murder of teachers and ultra-violence of the Cultural Revolution in Mao Tse-Tung's China.
Over two acts, the stories are presented interleaved, coming together at the close to make their common point: "Believe, Survive, Endure."
The production, by Mr. Pountney, shifts rapidly between Germany, Mississippi and China. Swastika banners, Red Chinese flags and a chalkboard are primary visual components. Ordinary tables doubling as beds, desks, and even tables. The actors move the props on and off the stage rapidly, changing on the fly as the music shifts underfoot. The Chinese scenes also feature some impressive puppetry by the troupe Blind Summit Theater. They depicted the murdered school-teachers. In a later scene scene, they made a comic mockery of the local Communist Party.

To accompany this complex set of stories and time-slides, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies has written an astonishingly fluid score. The music of Kommilitonen! flips like a TV remote. An onstage marching band competes with a lone erhu player in the Chinese scenes. Wallis Guinta was impressive in the trouser role of Wu, the son of the two murdered  teachers who ultimately joins the party. As Zhou, the Red Guard member who participated in the killing, Karen Vuong gave a convincing portrait of the banality of evil.

Mississippi has a gospel flavor, with the chorus singing a variant on "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" in contrast with Will Liverman's soliloquies as James Meredith. Mr. Liverman was something of a cipher as Meredith, but maybe that's because the ever-shifting libretto does not penetrate his story-line with the same amount of depth. That is reserved for the White Rose story, with the Scholl siblings movingly portrayed by Deanna Breiwick and Alexander Hajek. Their death ended the opera, but not before they painted graffiti denouncing Hitler across the stage and dropped Kommilitonen! leaflets from the balcony.

The German scenes take their musical idiom from composers banned by the Nazis: Weill, Krenek, and maybe a dash of Ullmann. They also incorporate an excerpt from "The Grand Inquisitor", the most famous chapter from Fyodor Dosteyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. This is a parable where the Inquisitor interrogates Jesus Christ. The interrogator was played by baritone AubreyAllicock. Jesus was an empty chair. Tenor Noah Baetge narrated as the Evangelist.

Conductor Anne Manson held this complex score together with tight, sprung rhythms in the orchestra and clear delineation of tone-rows in the woodwinds. Add in  the marching band, the offstage chorus and singers up in the balconies, and this opera becomes a tough set of challenges. It came off razor-sharp.

Following the performance, the audience was greeted with a small party of Occupy protestors. They had decided to take their "people's microphone" to Lincoln Center that night. Sir Peter, walking past the little group, stopped to talk to the Occupiers as thirty or so cops stood around. He clearly approved.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.