The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Friday, May 8, 2009

HGO: Previn world premiere - Brief Encounter

With the even somewhat commercial success of Andre Previn's first opera, Streetcar Named Desire that had its world premiere in S.F., his second opera met with considerable anticipation here. Previn wisely chose a story, a subject less portentous, weighty, with Noel Coward this time instead of Tennessee Williams.

One saw Streetcar, in the likelihood of already having seen the Leigh/Brando classic, to be still haunted by the poetry of the film that overshadowed the Previn - yet still the story had enough popular appeal. For many who embrace Americana of just about any stripe or flavor, for the always elusive hope of classical music cultivating populist appeal - especially for those who accept any apologia or excuse this way - one could not go wrong at all with Streetcar. The good news here is that Brief Encounter is a better work than Streetcar for reasons mentioned already. It makes a better chick (as in chick flick) or 'date opera’ too than does Streetcar.

However, the neurotic edge of both movie and the acting of Vivien Leigh was softened, marginalized and sanitized by the generic scoring of Andre Previn and the heavy back phrasing of Renee Fleming - with music written for her to cater exactly to that aspect of her vocalism. Elisabeth Futral, Stella Dubois in Streetcar, had perhaps the best solo of the first act in it and created Laura Jesson in the world premiere of the new opera.

For about thirty minutes of Brief Encounter – ultimately at 135 minutes none too brief - I began to think that Previn may have come up with a real winner too (with words by John Caird). He seemed to follow the design of the screenplay of the David Lean movie quite faithfully, if unimaginatively. Previn slipped too in having failed a bit to get Caird to scale things back on how far the part of Laura extends itself.

Previn, with extensive years of commercial background he has had, could not help, following how he wrote Streetcar, but fortunately less tendentiously here, making the opera considerably a star vehicle now for Futral as somewhat guilt-ridden heroine as is Laura Jesson by opera’s end. Same as happened with Blanche in Streetcar, passages of Brief Encounter, even with break-ins on banter going on at bar counter in the train stop, form especially in Act One into a stream of seemingly almost endless monologue for Futral - mixed in too with snatches and extended passages both of dialogue mostly with the doctor Alec.. Except in perhaps a self-regarding way, they ultimately fails to say or communicate much, especially when one considers the length of such passages

The story deals with a series of increasingly contrived unplanned mostly Thursday meetings (to eventually being planned entirely) between a married woman and doctor who is not her husband at the same train depot. The husband does not appear at all in the original one-act by Noel Coward, Still Life - neither is there in that play any flashback or, at least to significant degree as structural device, narration.

Previn's strengths include here having a pretty good ear for comic relief and the characters on stage that provide it and also capturing, momentarily numerous times the atmosphere overall of the place in which his action takes place. Emotions of regret and foreboding were clearly felt right at the very end of Act One and a good several times quite effectively during Act Two. His feel for writing diegetic music (music on stage) lacked sufficient humor to match what was happening on stage. The impatience of passengers with their continuing to play for well beyond the desire to hear them anymore certainly then became noteworthy.

As far as what humor he did adequately write in, the writing for Laura's friend, Dolly (Rebekah Camm), verbose in her gossip for the two extended scenes she is in, is smart.. It was certainly enough so, that the second time that Dolly comes on during Act Two same way, one felt like bending one's ear a little extra to eavesdrop on what she might have to say; Laura, by comparison, did not seem to have ever said much at all.

More than in Streetcar and in there being too more of an element of autobiography to Brief Encounter for Previn, I detected a little strain in attempting to apply a personal stamp to especially how well he (and Caird) had developed his main characters in this opera. How much that is due too to the influence of David Lean would require my watching the film. The character who is more reserved and less frivolous of the two protagonists in Still Life is Laura.

Previn infuses Alec (Nathan Gunn) with what he wants us to hear from near the start as more credible passion and conviction about his goals in life, whereas Coward's lines to do with the latter clearly read as though they are to just come off as flighty. Is it that with opera, here being in the realm of high art, that Previn does not want to be caught to have missed a beat this way? However, does Previn really have it syntactically in his attempt to present a personal operatic language to really convincingly pull it off? It just seems to be with considerable strain that he does so.

And then there is Laura's crossword puzzle obsessed husband Fred. At least, George, during 'Hump the Hostess' late in Act Two of 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' so bemusedly puts on that he is not even mildly irritated that his wife is (acting at) making out with the handsome young (and also married) new biology assistant professor (who and his mousey wife are still her invited over guests at four a.m.). Martha even more uselessly tries to get George openly upset over this and George gives Martha a little more of her fill of 'that's nice'. Cut Fred down to a torso and we’d certainly still have him.

The low point of Act One was Alec down to his skivvies on houseboat with Laura. The low but a somewhat intended high point of Act Two was a trio where all three (?) of them, including Fred, moon and swoon over the desire to be remembered for a long time to come. What could have been memorable might have been Alec with his hand on Laura's ass (while Laura is tormented inside whether she should be enjoying this or feeling guilty about it) while Fred hardly looks up at all. That we knew that Fred was probably never going to quite 'get it' (could he be autistic?) anyway, Previn could have ended Brief Encounter with the simplicity of letting us guess a bit more (except that he expects that we have probably seen the David Lean film by now) about Laura and Alec by ending the opera with a good scene that is there of ongoing witticism between Mr. Godby and Myrtle over at the counter, plus Dolly with her gossip of the day - and then a mere shrug of the shoulders or two by Laura - my idea - over whatever. Gosh. A 'kingdom for a horse' one of Fred's crossword puzzle clues ends up? How about 'a kingdom (or his castle) for the next train' instead?

Had Previn not cut Alec or himself as the complex heroic figure he does, he could have effectively had Laura do a Monica Vitti on us, as at the end of Antonioni's The Eclipse and speak of meeting again tomorrow, the next day after that, and so on and so on as though she could not possibly anymore give a damn or shred thereof one way or another ever again. Pipe dreams, you should say indeed. Brief Encounter would then make a lousy instead of the pretty good 'date' opera that in fact it really does - barring anyone upset over current or past infidelities.

Muiscally alone, a clever enough audience colleague of mine, possibly said it best that the whole thing felt like a play (with music in the background - implied). There is indeed a 'reinvent the wheel' tendency Previn shows in quickly becoming so gratuitous with seventh and ninth chords, plus for melodic line (somewhat as developed out of a good love theme first introduced by the orchestra) a constant arch over a minor seventh above perfect fifth to which Previn, I am only mildly led to believe, thinks he may have the same relationship as Al Gore once famously claimed to have with the internet.

Briefly before a little good music depicting a stormy breeze blowing the door to the station open or something like that, Previn at the start of Act Two does a sequence of a dozen plus harmonically distantly related triads and chords which made me immediately think of very similar passage in Britten's Billy Budd (right around point where Billy is to be read his death sentence, I think) that we did last year. I had to turn back and whisper to a older lady opera patron from Seattle to ask whether or not we should start counting to thirty-four when Previn repeated it halfway through Act Two for great moment of epiphany in its story line handed down to him and as intended to us here. Or perhaps one could have looked up 34 across or down on puzzle in the Friday New York Times.

Before I am seen to be picking on Andre Previn too much here, let it be said even from me that for Futral and the rest of his cast he has composed music that fits, suits voices, personalities and temperaments very well. Futral's singing, and as so complemented by Previn's music for Laura, has taken on more fully lyric qualities since her Manon (Massenet) for us six years ago; she has found a fine benefactor in Previn. She cut a very sympathetic figure on stage. One had to wait until a good aria for Alec alone to open Act Two as to quite know what to entirely make of his character either dramatically or musically. That was certainly no fault of Nathan Gunn, still very handsome and in fine, supple voice, acting and singing the part with the romantic ardor Previn requests. .

Rebekah Camm led the supporting cast with a cleanly sung, pert, sassy enough Dolly without turning any of it for a moment arch or cloying in any way. Camm has proven here one of the finest artists to have emerged from Houston Opera Studio, and as a member of the studio of Shirley Verrett - with whom Verrett must certainly be happy as well - after also her fine Pamina in Magic Flute of last season here. Kim Josephson, acting the part of Fred as troubled somehow but clueless nevertheless, sang, created his part well to all specifications.

Not having observed cast list beforehand, I turned to ask who was the fine character tenor as Mr Godby, to find out a little to my embarrassment that it was baritone Robert Orth, who we saw here eighteen years ago as a disappointing Guglilemo in Cosi Fan Tutte (together with Mattila, Van Der Walt, Stella Zambalis and Renato Capecchi). Should he ever follow Fink to be a next Alberich, I fear that for anyone in the future listening to the Ring over the air who does not know it well, one might confuse him for either the Loge or Mime. He proved as Mr Godby, equally ideal casting as such alongside cavernously ample voiced Meredith Arwady (the next Stephanie Blythe?) as incisively acted bossy lady at the counter, Myrtle, their banter accentuated once by playful slap (with good punch line) on where Ms. Arwady proved more than ample enough as well. Alicia Gianni was the cute, quickly alert appearing Beryl.

Patrick Summers led the Houston Grand Opera orchestra with full sympathy for Previn's opulent melodic lines and harmonic language, and very amply gauging its interesting moments here and there of rhythmic trickery with suitable aplomb as well. His pacing, even if Previn's did not always, worked very well for the piece; Previn found a well nigh perfect advocate in Summers of his new opera, and with by now more than ample experience in American opera, not only with Streetcar, to pull it off so well.

John Caird's production was sentimentally atmospheric and true to period in most every gesture, idiom, costuming, fine lighting and what have you. He returns here next season here for a new production of Tosca. Although my sentiments will only be echoed by a few, I had to think as Friday evening ended that this is what so much a standard mid cult audience for opera (such as anything of more sizable mind or intellect the Met and Peter Gelb go out of their way these days to discourage attending there anymore) imagines Puccini to be almost exactly.

The plot of Brief Encounter and more vaguely feeling for atmosphere could possibly strike one as, though at most, mildly allusive to that of La Rondine. And yet it is our loss, such as with the horrible dvd-immortalized Boheme from the Met last season, in our grasp of Puccini - even of La Boheme - that this is so. One of Myrtle's assistants sweeps up the floor of the train stop and there is no visible dust to come up. I am so reminded of the so nonexistent to be out-of-corners mice-eaten grime, dust Il Tabarro from the Met two years ago.

I should close here by referring back momentarily to good anecdote about Previn during his Symphony years here in the late 1960's. He possibly even confided to a friend of mine how speechless, amazed perhaps, he was that the Symphony offices were picking up so many calls (from presumably blue-haired old ladies) upset over his programming of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. Never mind that it predated his stint here with the HSO in when it was written by what was already nearly the age of the composer and conductor Previn at the time. There was little or nothing about Brief Encounter to strike anybody even nearly fifty years ago as being the least bit avant-garde. Even Previn, with opportunity to do so for a moment, might be wise to think back, for sake of posterity if nothing else, to all he could have meant then.

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