John Adams's new opera

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John F
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John Adams's new opera

Post by John F » Sat Dec 02, 2017 6:40 am

"Girls of the Golden West" has been premiered in San Francisco, and I expect Peter Gelb will eventually bring it to the Met. According to Anthony Tommasini, the music has virtues but the libretto - assembled rather than written by Peter Sellars - is a problem. No surprise there. Adams's early success "Nixon in China" had a proper librettist, Alice Goodman, who actually wrote the words so that they could be sung, with Sellars in the background (as Svengali?). But Adams now has no real librettist, the words culled from original sources were not written to be sung, and the unsatisfactory result as Tommasini describes it doesn't surprise me. But given a chance, I'll probably see this.

Review: John Adams Mines Gold Rush History for His New Opera
DEC. 1, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO — During an early scene in John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” the story’s plucky heroine, based on a real woman known as Dame Shirley, describes some Native Americans she encountered en route to a California mining encampment during the Gold Rush. Her disarmingly honest impressions of these women (“miserable people,” naked except for a “quantity of grass around the waist and covering the thighs”) are a little uncomfortable to read in the pages of her published letters. But the Shirley in this elaborate San Francisco Opera production, which I attended on Wednesday and which runs through Dec. 10, is the radiant young soprano Julia Bullock, and Mr. Adams has written extraordinary music for this haunting scene — misty, restrained, yet swirling with inner intensity.

Poignant and captivating, the scene is also frustrating: It suggests how great the entire opera could have been.

“Girls” was inspired by the collection of 23 letters from 1851-52 that Louise Amelia Clappe, who went by the nom de plume Dame Shirley — she had left Massachusetts with her husband for San Francisco and wound up spending 15 months in a rugged Sierra Nevada mining town — wrote to her sister back home. The letters are remarkable, revealing an observant author and fearless woman with keen descriptive powers. Lengthy excerpts from them are central elements of the opera’s libretto, by the director Peter Sellars, who assembled the text from original sources, including memoirs of fugitive slaves, poems of Chinese immigrants and historical documents.

Mr. Adams has long had a penchant for adding layer upon layer of agitated musical strands to his scores. But through most of the long first act of “Girls” (the two acts combined last nearly three hours), he thins the textures to expose intricate details and piercing modernist chords. During Shirley’s character-defining moment describing the Native Americans, the orchestra bustles with subdued yet jerky rhythmic spurts and jagged phrases. Yet diaphanous, elusive harmonies cushion Shirley’s reflections, which unfold as searching, long-lined phrases. Here, Mr. Adams digs beneath Shirley’s words, however loaded they are with dated racial stereotypes, to reveal a well-educated and sensitive woman caught up in confused feelings. She seems moved, curious and vulnerable, especially in Ms. Bullock’s exquisite performance.

The staging of the scene suggests that Shirley might be directing her words to Ned, a recently freed slave, now a cowboy, cook and musician, who is listening close by. Still, Ms. Bullock’s Shirley, facing the audience, actually directs her thoughts to us. The character winds up seeming less the opera’s heroine than its narrator, telling us about her adventures in California. Most of the texts Mr. Sellars has selected come across onstage like statements or speeches, a device that becomes dramatically stilted.
The opera opens with Clarence, a hearty miner (the exuberant bass-baritone Ryan McKinny), who sets up the story almost as if giving a lecture. “It was a driving, vigorous, restless population,” Mr. McKinny sings lustily over skittish, pointillist music in the orchestra. “Not dainty, simpering kid-gloved weaklings, but muscular, stalwart, dauntless young braves.” (The words come from Mark Twain’s “Roughing It.”) When Ned (the charismatic young bass-baritone Davóne Tines) first appears, he describes himself in the third person: “Ned Peters was a hustler from Independence town,” Mr. Tines sings in virile, restless phrases. Most of Ned’s words come from the journals of fugitive slaves.

For “Doctor Atomic,” the previous collaboration between Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars, which had its premiere here in 2005, Mr. Sellars also assembled a libretto from poetry, journals and original documents. Though the results had awkward aspects, that opera maintained a strong narrative impetus: Its plot was driven by a countdown to the first detonation of a nuclear bomb.
Mr. Sellars’s patched-together approach doesn’t work as well for “Girls,” a work that cavalierly invites comparisons with Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (“The Girl of the West”), an Italian’s take on the Gold Rush. The historical Dame Shirley was a fascinating woman with a pioneering spirit. But her story gets lost amid what comes across as a bold attempt to write the great California opera — a sweeping tale of the mad quest for fortune that was the mostly disastrous Gold Rush.

Some exciting stretches, conducted with crackling energy and color by Grant Gershon, certainly convey the teeming wildness, racial animosity and lawless violence that roiled the West. The rugged miners sing words taken from actual miners’ songs, set to rhythmically fractured music, enlivened with accordion and cow bells. The tenor Paul Appleby gives a dynamic performance as Joe Cannon, a miner who leaves behind a girl in Missouri, who then abandons him to marry a butcher back home, as Joe learns during a boisterous scene in a bar full of drunken miners. Joe finds comfort with a Chinese prostitute, Ah Sing (the brilliant coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee), who decides that Joe, a client, would also make an ideal mate.

Two compelling singers, the baritone Elliot Madore and the mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, bring poignant intensity to the roles of Ramón and Josefa, a young Mexican couple who work at the bar. Ramón smolders with rage, fearing that at any moment, the Americans could turn on him or abuse Josefa, a fear that leads to the opera’s harrowing conclusion. But Ramón’s words mostly come from the Gold Rush diary of a South American journalist, and Josefa’s from an Argentine poet. Even during moments of romance, in Mr. Adams’s hazy, shimmering music, the lovers sound as if they were mere mouthpieces, singing past each other.
Mr. Adams and Mr. Sellars might have opted for a middle-ground approach and folded a few of Shirley’s letters, like the revealing one about the Native Americans, along with other poems and speeches, into a libretto that told a clearer story. At one point, Mr. Tines’s Ned mounts the stump to sing a stinging aria based on “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?” — a bitterly powerful 1852 speech by Frederick Douglass. It’s a tour de force moment for Mr. Tines and, in a way, for Mr. Adams. Yet it comes across like an interpolated concert aria, suggesting both the strengths and shortcomings of this ambitious new opera. ... eview.html
John Francis

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Re: John Adams's new opera

Post by lennygoran » Sat Dec 02, 2017 6:49 am

I'd sure give it a try. Len

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Re: John Adams's new opera

Post by jserraglio » Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:50 am

The Dark Side of the Gold Rush
By Alex Ross ... -gold-rush

John Adams, Girls of the Golden West
John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” is an assault on American mythology.

On November 21, 1852, Louise Clappe, a New Englander who had spent a year at a gold-rush mining camp in the Sierra Nevada, looked around in awe as she took her leave of the place. In a letter to her sister, she wrote, “Like an immense concave of pure sapphire without spot or speck, the wonderful and never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California drops down upon the whole its fathomless splendor.” Those words are sung at the end of John Adams’s new opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” which is receiving its première performances at the San Francisco Opera. On opening night—a hundred and sixty-five years, to the day, after Clappe wrote her letter—the formidable young American soprano Julia Bullock unfurled gently descending phrases that stretched to the bottom of her range. The orchestra hovered evanescently around her, like the luminous mist that clings to the hills on Northern California mornings.

This music has an especially piercing effect because it comes in the wake of a cavalcade of horrors. Like all of Adams’s stage works to date, “Girls of the Golden West” was directed by Peter Sellars, who also assembled the libretto. Both Adams and Sellars are California residents, but neither is inclined to romanticize the state. In forty years of collaboration, they have addressed all manner of provocative topics—Richard Nixon’s visit to China, the Achille Lauro terrorist incident, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the Trinity atomic-bomb test—yet they have never launched such a frontal assault on our national mythology. The California gold rush was the proving ground of Manifest Destiny, transmuting rugged individualism into wealth and glory. Here it becomes a grotesque bacchanal of white-male supremacy, capped by a Fourth of July party that degenerates into a racist riot. Clappe’s closing aria is therefore no rhapsody: the majesty of nature sits in silent judgment.

The gold rush has reached the opera stage before. Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West,” based on David Belasco’s play “The Girl of the Golden West,” was first seen at the Met in 1910. Sellars had the idea for his latest project after receiving an offer to direct Puccini’s opera; he became convinced that a franker treatment of the gold rush was needed. The title that Sellars and Adams chose has proved problematic: some opera patrons are put off by the implicit critique of Puccini’s chronically underrated score. In fact, “Golden West” is an entirely different beast. It shows a past that is not really past, a hollow myth still in the making.

Sellars has lately adopted a documentary style of libretto writing, compiling texts from memoirs, letters, and historical accounts. The method was first applied a decade ago, in “Doctor Atomic,” the Trinity opera. Sellars’s approach has displeased many music critics, who prefer the dense, hypnotic librettos that Alice Goodman wrote for Adams’s first two operas, “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer.” (Goodman’s work is now available in a volume titled “History Is Our Mother,” from New York Review Books.) It’s worth recalling that those operas, now considered classics, were initially dismissed as artificial and inert. Still, “Golden West” seems an uneven, overlong creation. It would strike harder in trimmer form.

Most of the incidents enacted onstage took place in the Sierra Nevada in 1851 and 1852. The main source is Clappe, whose letters to her sister were later published as a journal, under the pseudonym Dame Shirley. Sellars also drew on miners’ ballads and on Hispanic, African-American, and Asian testimonies. Dame Shirley, as Clappe is known in the opera, arrives at a camp with her husband, a physician, and Ned Peters, a fugitive slave turned cowboy. She encounters a boastful miner named Clarence; a hard-drinking lout named Joe Cannon; Ah Sing, a Chinese prostitute who dreams of settling down with Joe; Ramón, a Mexican hotel bartender; and Josefa, Ramón’s lover, who works at the bar. In the dénouement, Joe tries to force himself on Josefa, who responds by stabbing him to death. She is lynched, and nonwhite miners are driven out of town. A similar incident unfolded in Downieville, California, in 1851.

The mayhem is reserved for Act II. Act I attempts something tricky, which doesn’t quite succeed onstage. The idea is to present an off-kilter fantasy of gold-rush life, framed by Brechtian distancing. Stagehands are seen moving props on and off; anachronisms intrude, including neon beer signs at the hotel bar. Dame Shirley’s interactions with Ned—portrayed by the sensational young bass-baritone Davóne Tines—have a slapstick, vaudeville character. Adams sets all this energetically, but with an excess of lightly bouncing parlando. Meditative passages better suit his command of spacious musical landscapes, both interior and exterior. One highlight is Dame Shirley’s description of a young Native American woman: “With a mocking grace infinitely bewitching she sat upon the ground and smiled up into my face.” At such moments, the score extends the free-floating lyrical vein that Adams developed in Act III of “Nixon in China.”

Act II of “Golden West” is a juggernaut of cumulative menace—a structure similar to the transfixing countdown in “Atomic.” Surrealist touches augment the atmosphere of nightmare. At the camp, “Macbeth” is being staged for the miners’ benefit, and we see hallucinatory scenes of Dame Shirley as Lady Macbeth (“Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here”) and Clarence as Macbeth (“Is this a dagger which I see before me”). Adams’s savage, fractured music makes one long for an entire Shakespeare opera from him. Ned assumes the voice of Frederick Douglass, reciting his great, incendiary oration “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In that colossal aria, Tines’s Wotanesque voice is underpinned by an orchestra that gestures with Beethovenian vehemence. Meanwhile, choruses of restless miners, already ominous in Act I, become fully demonic, their singsong rhythm reduced to hammering intervals: “There is no land upon the earth / Contains the same amount of worth.” When this braying mob fixes its attention on Josefa, Ned, and other people of color, it recalls the vengeful crowd in “The Gospel According to the Other Mary,” Adams’s Crucifixion oratorio.

An extraordinary young cast was on hand for the première. Bullock and Tines are two of the strongest American actor-singers to emerge in recent years; their instinctive sympathy with Adams and Sellars’s vision recalls prior work by Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Sanford Sylvan. J’Nai Bridges gave a glowing, searing performance as Josefa, who responds to the mob with serene fury. Elliot Madore lent mellow eloquence to Ramón; Hye Jung Lee glittered as Ah Sing. The tenor Paul Appleby, as Joe, caught the desperation behind the character’s drunken bravado. Ryan McKinny, a fast-rising Wagnerian bass-baritone, created a dynamic portrait of Clarence, who begins with masculine swagger, becomes a monster by degrees, and ends up a guilt-ridden shell. Grant Gershon effectively marshalled the orchestra and the chorus, though the edges were rough on opening night.

“Girls of the Golden West” feels more like a first draft than like a finished piece, but it has the raw stuff of a major opera, and rawness is part of its power. What resonates most in Donald Trump’s America is the way that empty, stupid boasting devolves into paranoid rage. The miners who sing lines like “We’ve got the highest mountains here / Taller trees, and faster deer” could now be scripting political campaigns and Team U.S.A. advertising. Dame Shirley is too wise to perpetuate such rhetoric. At the end, she sees not only purple mountains and that fathomless blue sky but also “empty bottles, oyster cans, sardine boxes, broken jars, all manner of debris, the harsher outlines of which are softened off by the thinnest possible coating of radiant snow.”

Annie Gosfield, War of the Worlds

November was a good month for new opera in the Golden State. Down south, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented Annie Gosfield’s “War of the Worlds,” an adaptation of Orson Welles’s hoax broadcast of 1938, which fooled some radio listeners into believing that a Martian invasion was under way. As with “Girls of the Golden West,” an episode from the American past proves uncomfortably relevant to the present. Gosfield, a New York-based composer with a virtuosic command of classical, pop, and avant-garde styles, began the score before “fake news” entered the lexicon. Like Welles, she places the reality-bending power of the media under scrutiny.

The libretto is by the young Los Angeles-based director Yuval Sharon, who three years ago masterminded the astounding multi-composer opera “Hopscotch,” in which audience members were ferried around L.A. in limousines. “War of the Worlds” was less logistically elaborate, but it did involve simultaneous performances in various locations. The main audience was seated at Disney Hall, where the orchestra was ostensibly performing a new suite, by Gosfield, modelled on Holst’s “The Planets.” The actress Sigourney Weaver, who has a history with aliens, assumed the pose of an unctuous gala host. Halfway through the “Mercury” movement, she broke in with the first of many news bulletins. As the concert faltered—we never got past “Earth”—Weaver elicited live reports from three nearby parking lots, each of which had its own performers and audience. The auxiliary sites were placed near antiquated air-raid sirens that still stand throughout the city; they hummed with extraterrestrial transmissions. Scientists jabbered technicalities; a TV reporter interviewed eyewitnesses; a military honcho tried to impose order. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, had a cameo, appearing onstage at Disney with a reassuring message: “Please don’t attempt to leave this building. Just outside these walls is utter chaos.” A climactic ray-gun assault on Disney was repelled by the metal shield that Frank Gehry had presciently installed on the exterior. Weaver exclaimed, “The power of music has redeemed humanity once again!”

This “War of the Worlds” is, in other words, a comedy from the outset. Wisely, it makes no attempt to duplicate the original 1938 scare, although a few passersby at the outdoor sites were momentarily bewildered by the racket. (One bystander asked, “What’s going on, dude?” When someone answered, “Aliens have landed,” he nodded and walked away.) The libretto is well stocked with in-jokes. There are obligatory references to L.A. traffic, which apparently gets even worse during Martian invasions. Weaver incited extended laughter when she reported computer anomalies and “gas outbursts” in such locales as “Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania.” Gosfield’s “Planets” deftly parodies composerly clichés: the “Venus” movement contains textbook examples of how not to double voices with instrumental lines.

Like “Hopscotch,” “War of the Worlds” changed shape depending on where you were watching. No one had a privileged view. Indeed, the siren stations, where tickets were free, were probably the most fun: to the delight of kids in attendance, puppet aliens encroached upon the audience, and they conspicuously resembled the titular robot in “wall-e.” Underneath the silliness was a sharp critique of the idea of art as refuge, consolation, or distraction. We are meant to roll our eyes when Weaver gushes, “Every time we gather in this magnificent building, we ascend to a higher plane where peace and compassion reign supreme.” Gosfield’s score alternates adroitly between campy pastiche and authentic sci-fi eeriness. Her interpolation of radio-jamming signals, distorted transmissions, and other electronic fuzz adds layers of sonic unease. In the coda, a darkly radiant mass of sound, incorporating voices and instruments from all four sites, evokes Earth under the gaze of what is described as “a great intelligence, vast, cool, and unsympathetic.”

“War of the Worlds” was a collaboration between the L.A. Phil and the Industry, Sharon’s experimental opera company. A tight-knit troupe of singers and actors matched the verve of Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air. The baritone Hadleigh Adams delivered a comic tour de force as General Lansing, who becomes unhinged as he extolls a Trumpian “wall of defense” that is supposed to keep aliens at bay. Gosfield gives him a full-on mad scene, with deranged atonal coloratura. The actor Gabriel Romero supplied a lifelike sketch of a harried and addled TV reporter. The soprano Hila Plitmann arrestingly portrayed a Martian spokesperson, her voice oscillating like a sine wave. The Philharmonic musicians, under the incisive direction of Christopher Rountree, gamely tackled unusual assignments. David Garrett, Jin-Shin Dai, and Jory Herman deserve particular praise for executing string solos in parking lots under a hot sun.

Two of the three performances of “War of the Worlds” were folded into the L.A. Phil’s annual new-music marathon, Noon to Midnight. Several thousand curiosity-seekers took in a vast range of contemporary idioms, including sounds at the far end of the experimental spectrum. The sassas collective—the Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Sound—unleashed improvisatory anarchy in an amphitheatre behind Disney Hall. In a reception area inside Disney, Michael Pisaro oversaw a rendition of his piece “Ricefall,” which involves grains of rice being poured on metallic, ceramic, and plastic surfaces. The percussion ensemble red fish blue fish occupied Disney’s garden with another extraterrestrial composition: Gérard Grisey’s “Le Noir de l’Étoile,” which incorporates deep-space radio waves emitted by pulsars. Meanwhile, food trucks on Grand Avenue supplied pizza and pad thai.

The impression in both San Francisco and Los Angeles was of a vital, engaged new-music cohort, one unafraid of risk. This incaution is a counterweight to a classical-music culture that, for the most part, cowers in the face of modern life. On the same weekend as the L.A. Phil marathon, Andris Nelsons, the music director of the Boston Symphony, told a public-radio host that sexual harassment was not a problem in the classical world, and that if people listened to more music “they would become better human beings.” This is precisely the kind of head-in-the-sand idealism targeted in “War of the Worlds.” Nelsons later amended his remarks, but a sense of obliviousness remained. A few days later, the conductor Mariss Jansons was quoted as saying that women on the podium weren’t his “cup of tea.” He, too, attempted a clarification, yet his original words sounded more sincere. Perhaps such disgraceful episodes will hasten the end of the age of the maestro. These days, composers have a great deal more to say about the tumultuous, terrifying, not yet hopeless world in which we live.

This article appears in the print edition of the December 11, 2017, issue, with the headline “True West.”

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Re: John Adams's new opera

Post by lennygoran » Sun Dec 10, 2017 7:41 am

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Dec 10, 2017 5:50 am
“Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer.” (Goodman’s work is now available in a volume titled “History Is Our Mother,” from New York Review Books.) It’s worth recalling that those operas, now considered classics, were initially dismissed as artificial and inert. Still, “Golden West” seems an uneven, overlong creation. It would strike harder in trimmer form.<
Thanks for these reviews-I would sure go to each one--especially the Adams--if they ever arrived near NYC! As for The Death of Klinghoffer being a classic too bad I couldn't get to see it HD style-well at least I saw it live-thing is I really needed a second viewing to make up my mind. Regards, Len

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Re: John Adams's new opera

Post by karlhenning » Sat Dec 23, 2017 11:34 am

That's one benefit of having a big name: even if previews downplay expectations, people go to see/hear your work. Ka-ching!

Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
Published by Lux Nova Press

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