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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Opera Review: Sudden Death, Over Time

Pocket Opera Players premieres two new works.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The composer Anton Webern at the piano. 
The sudden failure of New York City Opera caused a tectonic shift in the landscape of New York's opera community. Suddenly, the spotlight has fallen on Pocket Opera Players, John Eaton's smart little shoe-string company working out of the Thalia Theater on the lower level of Symphony Space. On Saturday night, POP (as they style themselves) offered the third performance of its season-opening double bill: The Death of Webern by Michael Dellairia and ReRouted, a farce by company leader John Eaton.

Anton Webern was a composer of genius, and a student of Arnold Schoenberg. Although he only published 31 works, Webern broke new musical barriers with an astringent, sometimes aphoristic musical style that turned its back on centuries of musical development. His ideas included dodecaphonic (or "twelve-tone") music, and serialism, a mathematical system of organizing notes, rhythms and pitches to create brave new worlds of sound. All this modernism didn't sit well with the Nazis, who banned Webern's works as decadent shortly after they annexed Austria.

The Death of Webern uses the composer's serial techniques and note-rows to retell the odd, tragic circumstances of the composer's death on September 15, 1945. The composer had just finished dinner at his son-in-law Benno's house in Mittersill, the small village outside Salzburg where Webern lived at the end of the war. Following dinner, he stepped outside to enjoy the luxury of a cigar, unaware that an American patrol was outside, armed and looking for Benno--a local arms dealer. When Webern lit up, he was shot by an American army private.

Mr. Dellairia's opera is like Webern's work: powerful and compact. The composer retells these dark events in stark colors and bright splashes of sound. The powerful, literate libretto by J.D. McClatchy draws the listener in through the work of music collector and archivist Hans Moldenhauer (City Opera veteran James Bobick) whose investigation into the killing of this great man provides a compelling forensic drama. Moldenhauer's blindness is a key plot point, and watching someone with this disability penetrate the murk of a military cover-up is a compelling idea.

The supporting cast of players is very able. Craig Philips (as the racist Army officer in charge of the cover-up) and Tony Boutté (as Webern himself) deliver compelling performances. Especially affecting is Christina Ascher as the widow of Raymond Bell, the soldier who shot Webern and later committed suicide. Much of the work is written in tone-rows, with repeated musical ideas worked forward and backward in a complex fabric of chamber instrumentation. A final elegy for piano quotes Webern at length, a fitting coda to this little tragedy.

ReRouted provided a perfect contrast. Inspired by the Dosteovsky story Bobok and the travails of certain New York opera companies, this is the story of Ivan, a hapless young intern (Mr. Boutté) and his relationship with the G.P.S. navigator (singer/flautist Jessica Schmitz) on his iPad. Ivan's trip downtown (shown with accompanying digital projections) finds him temping as the recording secretary to the "Metropolis Opera Company." This even-than-weirder-than-usual portrayal of an opera company board meeting is portrayed with slashes of chords, fragments of Wagner, Puccini, Mozart and Gluck, and a vicious, biting wit.

Mr. Eaton's opera (setting a libretto by his daughter Estela) pulls very few punches, relying on inside jokes and references to the turbulent recent history of opera in New York as source material. Some exceptional vocal performances help hammer the work home, including Marcy Richardson as a reluctant diva with a phobia of complex stage machinery, Mr. Bobick as a scarf-wearing maestro with an enormous ego and certain physical limitations, and Mr. Philips as a take-no-prisoners Schauspieldirektor.

The work climaxes with the unsuccessful download of a new (and more intelligent) G.P.S. (played by Ms. Ascher) and a shambling attack by the board members--who are now zombies. This leads to a redemption of sorts for Ivan, who becomes a modern composer--an Orpheus attempting to escape from the underworld of opera. It all ends hopefully--sort of. Although this isn't subtle satire, ReRouted proves a marvelously entertaining diversion, and a welcome contrast to the grim work that it accompanied.

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