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The Ghosts of Versailles.

The recent storm of controversy-first over the "West as America" exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art and later over Oliver Stone's JFK-suggests an extraordinary public insecurity about the past. This uneasiness is evident in institutions where public representations of the past are supposed to deliver authoritative images not only of what America is (or was) but also of what America should view or listen to. It is a sure sign of imperial ascendancy in crisis, what with the economy a shambles, the official culture under attack and the old formula about American exceptionalism, innocence and patriotism faring very poorly. Hence, I believe, the need individuals and institutions feel to speak for or against an overriding consensus about America, as if what was at stake were not only a performance or an exhibition but American destiny itself. A wearying, humorless business.

Thus when, after decades of performing no new works, the Metropolitan Opera commissions an opera from composer John Corigliano and his librettist, William Hoffman, it bodes ill. So loaded down with expectations and significance was the enterprise, that when it finally came in December and January the opera lumbered in like a mastodon dressed in a pink tutu. Too long in the planning and writing, The Ghosts of Versailles was one of the most unsuccessful spectacles I have ever seen at the Met, incoherent and (literally) preposterous as an idea, undistinguished and mostly forgettable as music, bewilderingly opulent and needlessly elaborate as production. (Not surprisingly, it sold out all performances, partly because of media hype, partly because of rave reviews in the daily press.)

It is somewhere said of Wagner's first (and nonextant) opera that in Acts I and Il all the characters are killed, only to return as singing ghosts in Act III. It was booed off the stage and has (rightly) never been performed since. Corigliano and Hoffman have not only emulated but have tried to outdo Wagner's conceit: Their opera is entirely populated by ghosts, from Act 1, with its Prologue and five scenes, through Act 11, with its nine scenes and finale. I very much admired Andrew Porter's dutiful attempt in The New Yorker to make sense of this awful mishmash, but even he is finally defeated by the opera's needless involutions. Suffice it to say that The Ghosts of Versailles conceives of late-eighteenth-century French history and culture as suspended in a limbo of wraiths and unhoused plot possibilities, in which Beaumarchais's unfinished La Mere coupable (after The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro) is a pretext for plots and counterplots involving Almaviva, Figaro and Susanna from the world of imagination, and Beaumarchais, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from the real world of history.

Already we can see how ludicrous this is when we note that, as the program coyly puts it, " the characters themselves inhabit a world without boundaries" or, for that matter, without sense-to put it mildly. The point of this exercise rests upon a peculiarly American desire to rewrite and reconcile history: Beaumarchais, the radical (who in one scene prosecutes the Queen), and Marie Antoinette, the archreactionary, are in love. In the final moment of the final scene we see the two in an embrace, stage front, while at the back of the stage the "real" Marie is guillotined. But since they are all ghosts anyway, we suddenly realize that even in the land of ghosts there are classes and degrees of acceptability, real revolution being considerably lower in status than' Pollyanna and her chums.

As if all this-with an interminable subplot involving Almaviva's illegitimate child and a rascally revolutionary Begearss (sung to no avail by the formidably capable English tenor Graham Clark)were not enough, there is an interpolated scene near the middle designed to show eighteenth-century "Turkomania." Here we get Marilyn Horne as Samira, the Ottoman pasha's favorite singer, who disports herself in a disgracefully idiotic caricature of not Turkish but Arabic music, with poorly written and pronounced Arabic words as her text. The scene serves no dramatic or musical purpose but that of sanctioned tastelessness: The Arab/ Islamic world, quite bad enough in its present morass, is degraded still further by this utterly silly and confusing scene. Why a great singer like Horne should agree to perform such trash is rather bewildering.

Given all this, the real question is whether any music could be good, or bad, enough. Corigliano produced something perfectly suited to it, which I mean as at best an ambiguous compliment. Admittedly, I saw The Ghosts of Versailles only once, but the music was broadcast and I have a tape of it to which I have again and again referred. The music seems to me to be an unhappy mixture of three idioms, none of which has imparted a distinctive and successful aural personality to the whole. First, there is a pastiche of eighteenth-century musical style, using Mozart and his contemporaries as the takeoff point; second, there is American musical comedy plus Viennese operetta style, carried to parodistically brassy and overassertive lengths; then there is a sort of anonymous late- and postserial modernist idiom, overly dominated by Corigliano's impression of what, say, Lulu might be like if its techniques could be recycled in the 1990s. This is eclecticism without definition, one symptom of which is a radical uncertainty about when to end individual arias and scenes. The only sizable orchestral interlude occurs in the second act, which suggests that Corigliano was afraid to risk music that wasn't serviceably tied to the action; that interlude is tame stuff indeed, gray and on the whole fairly nondescript. What makes the opera's weaknesses especially apparent is the enormously lavish scale of the production. It would be hard to fault any of the singers-Teresa Stratas, Hakan Hagegard, Clark, Horne and Gino Quilico, among others-who seemed always to be struggling to find conviction enough to get over the ordeal. But the sets are big and expensive, the production values very much those of Hollywood, and the careening and inane energy of the whole is such as to tug orchestra and cast remorselessly through one hoop after another. I have no doubt that Corigliano, Hoffman and James Levine (the conductor) are gifted and serious artists, but there is something so willfully misconceived and overdone about the enterprise as to beggar even their talents. For in the end we are talking about an operatic production designed to woo the audience not so much with the work itself but with the power of an institution important enough to mount so lavish and expensive a theatrical evening, then to call it a "new opera," all without a hint of irony.

Yet The Ghosts of Versailles sits right next to the Met's extraordinary Idomeneo, which I saw scarcely a week before. Idomeneo is one of Mozart's least tractable works, an opera seria of great length, considerable musical complexity and quite impressive vocal difficulty. Levine conducted the performance without a single false moment or imprecise inflection. The plot of Idomeneo spins out from the Trojan War and involves an unengaging mix of melodramatic heroics and very stylized situations that outGlucks Gluck, so to speak. Luciano Pavarotti has made a specialty of the title role, with wonderful results (at least to a nonPavarotti fan like myself). He did not sing in the performance I attended, the role being taken creditably by the Canadian Ben Heppner, who is a slowly emerging Heldentenor with a tendency to be less expressive and various than his excellent voice would otherwise allow. Dawn Upshaw sang Ilia wonderfully, as did the very elegant Susanne Mentzer as Idamante. In the third big female role of the opera, Carol Vaness as Elettra got off to a somewhat shrieky start but brought down the house in her big third-act aria, with brilliance and passion combined in rare measure.

What one senses in the striking disparity between Idomeneo and The Ghosts of Versailles is not only the major discrepancy in the quality of the music but also the Met's institutional commitment to its role not simply as an important opera house but as the opera house of record. When it comes to what are in effect museum pieces-which, for all its grandeur and splendid music, Idomeneo is-the mandate is curatorial, and even antiquarian. This has marred the Met's Ring productions, as well as last spring's Parsifal, which Levine conducted as if he were disinterring, rather than enlivening and animating, the music. Happily for Idomeneo, a period piece even in Mozart's time, the Met's approach works. But when it comes to contemporary work, or operas that might be interpreted as having something urgent to say to contemporary audiences, style, decor and production lose the effect of a direct and forceful statement and become instead either parody or a jumble of loose ends.

As a whole The Ghosts of Versailles is far from being just a screwball effort to redo the French Revolution, to wish publicly that it never happened; it is also an opera meant to be uncontroversial, dealing only with ghosts, lackluster fictions, costumed put-ons who are so distanced and alienating as in the end to be almost completely unaffecting. Thus opera is shoved even further back from relevance or contemporary culture, which has the effect of saying that art ought to be as incoherent and as unchallenging to the status quo as possible. No wonder, therefore, that it was the Met that commissioned Ghosts and no wonder that all the opera's much ado was finally rendered so inoffensive and trivial.

At an almost exactly opposite pole was the City Opera's Die Soldaten, an opera completed in the mid-1960s by the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmerman and performed first in this country in Boston by Sarah Caldwell in 1982. City's production last October was, I think, one of its triumphs, not because of the opera itself but because as a sort of junior varsity house, City could devote itself seriously to the work and not worry too much about the politically correct position for a major opera company of record to take. It seems grimly objectionable to mention that Die Soldaten's composer committed suicide shortly after finishing the work, but it really is relevant. My impression is that Zimmerman took seriously Berg's achievements in Wozzeck and Lulu, and tried to build a work on that achievement. The result is a huge cinematic composition of unrelieved darkness and a kind of unforgiving grandeur that requires not only a large number of extremely skillful singers but an enormous orchestra of more than 100 musicians.

The story is based on a work by Jakob Lenz, an eighteenth-century writer who greatly impressed Buchner (indeed, there's a marvelous story by Buchner called "Lenz"), which Zimmerman turns into a weird combination of both Lulu and Wozzeck: the degradation of Zimmerman's Marie and her ordeals as enacted in a setting of soldiers' barracks and heartless commercialism. Rhoda Levine's production is brilliantly designed, and so overpoweringly theatrical as to submit the audience to trial by intensity. Among the many superb performers, Lisa Saffer as Marie was in a class by herself. Unfailingly effective, she sang the fearsomely difficult part without a hesitant note or accent-true, direct, lyrical. It is not entirely a coincidence that two of the best male performers-thomas Young and Eugene Perry-are Peter Sellars regulars, who did remarkable things in Die Soldaten. I said above that the opera was at an exactly opposite pole from The Ghosts of Versailles. Except for a couple of very Berg-like moments when he quotes a Bach chorale, Zimmerman, because he is so single-minded and undramatic, is a deeply flawed composer. Doubtless if one were to study the gigantic score there would be niceties and refinements to be discerned. But the general sense it delivers is unmistakably that of a man mirroring his pain and anguish directly onto a musical style uninflected, untempered by anything except anger and despair. In one of the program supplements for City Opera's production a commentator denies this, claiming that far from supplying "overkill" Zimmerman's music provides evidence that the composer was a "master of restraint'" This is patently untrue. Were it not for the skill and beauty of Lisa Saffer's presence you would not be able to hear much except heaps upon piles of densely aggressive sonorities; these are immediately expressive, directly, even blatantly, programmatic. The world is horrible, people are shits, innocence cannot, must not survive. Whether this ludicrously reductive Weltanschauung is musically boring because we've heard too much twelve-tone expressionism or seen too many horror movies with manipulative soundtracks, it is hard to tell. But Die Soldaten tries with all its force and resonances to leap across the proscenium and beat up the audience, a sort of crudely overdone naturalism without enough of a redeeming and clarifying aesthetic. It makes for satisfying a morbid curiosity and then moving on gratefully to performances of other music.

Which brings me at last to two exceptionally satisfying concert performances in recent months, vitally different in most ways, yet sharing a similar coherence of style and conception. I have been listening to the pianist Shura Cherkassky for about thirty years. Oddly enough, however, I have not listened much to his recordings, nor, given his Slavic (as opposed to Central European) pedigree, has he seemed to me to be interestingly at work in the repertory that I am most concerned with: Thus the Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms that often dot his programs seem put there largely to offset the Balakirev and showy Liszt pieces that have been his hallmark. A student of Josef Hofmann-a wonderful piano "great," although in my opinion a mystifyingly sanctified one, since there are only a small number of recordings around-Cherkassky is now 80. He has always been amusing to watch, what with his fussy little gestures, his often cutesy virtuosity, his seemingly unrestricted capacity to amuse and delight his audiences. Yet when he appeared at Carnegie Hall in December there was an effect rather like an epiphany that came from his playing, particularly in works (the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, the Schumann Symphonic Etudes, the Chopin E Major Scherzo) that are now encrusted with the habits and fake traditions of overuse and familiarity. I was reminded of the experience of watching the class clown suddenly turn in an academic performance of such sober mastery as to knock you back.

Part of the surprise was that Cherkassky had lost most of his distracting mannerisms, and with that had gained an unexpected gravity and seriousness of focus. There were moments in the middle variations where I felt that Schumann's obsessive insistence caused Cherkassky to lose his concentration, as if the illogical accents and numbing patterns bothered, or temporarily grounded, him. But in the Busoni, which he took at an unusually slow tempo, there was a robustness and rounded tonal beauty to the whole that made you actually see the stunning elaborations developing out of Bach's formal germ, as well as Busoni's exceptionally intelligent pianistic transformation of what had once been a violin piece. So too in the opening sections of the Schumann, as well as the Chopin Scherzo, where the fantastic lightness of the work, with its ascending and then downward echoing chordal progressions, kept returning with a graceful nonchalance very rarely attempted, much less encountered. Cherkassky returned to his customary repertoire with dashingly entertaining performances of difficult display pieces by Hofmann and Paul Pabst; the latter's paraphrase on themes from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin belongs to the category of virtuoso pieces (e.g., the SchulzEvler Blue Danube) that sound as if they could not be learned but have to be elegantly tossed off with a constant apprehension of imminent catastrophe.

You wouldn't want to say that Cherkassky is a Richter or a Michelangeli; he isn't. But when he plays he never seems worried that he might not be making an important statement about history, or that he is only a pianist doing his work. For that, quite without any embarrassment, is what he is, a pianist caught up in his job, without too many irrelevancies or pomposities. Cherkassky is genuine, attractive, persuasive. He shares this talent with the other musician recently in town, Robert Shaw, who at 75 is just as amazingly durable.

Shaw gained prominence in the 1950s, although during that period I attended only one of his performances with the Robert Shaw Chorale. He first came to attention as Toscanini's chorus director for the NBC Symphony, with results in intonation and virtuosity that are still unmatched, particularly in hitherto unperformed or very difficult works. Like Cherkassky he harks back to an earlier, less culturally pretentious time, when music making derived mainly from amateur singing, four-hand piano playing at home and the much awaited weekly broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. This was well before the days of ubiquitous "good music stations," and before the time when it became fashionable to assume that important cultural institutions were vehicles for the nation's identity.

There is something so irrefrangibly modest about Shaw's manner that you think it's all an act, like Rudolf Serkin's way of walking on to the stage somehow plaintively and apologetically. Although Shaw conducted the Atlanta Symphony for a couple of decades the job wasn't supposed to be significant, so his achievements were not really noticed. After he retired he started doing more recording and appearing with other orchestras across the country, where I have heard him on several occasions. On January 19 he was at Carnegie Hall leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's, a remarkably fine Robert Shaw Festival Chorus and excellent soloists-soprano Benita Valente, mezzo Florence Quivar, tenor Neil Rosenshein and bass Alistair Miles-in the Missa Solemnis, precisely the work for which, under Toscanini, his choral preparation had been the most impressive ever recorded.

It was certainly the finest performance of the piece that I have heard since Toscanini, and yet it could not have been more different. The Missa has been brilliantly characterized by Adorno in a famous essay as an "alienated masterpiece," that is, a work whose eccentricity, musical intractability and transcendental conception have never really been accommodated to the musical canon. It is also a very difficult piece to perform, full of abrupt changes in tempo and volume for musicians to negotiate, unfamiliar modal harmonies and, especially in the immense Credo, extremely complex fugal writing characteristic of the Hammer-klavier Sonata and the Diabelli Variations, among other late Beethoven pieces. Yet although the Missa Solemnis typifies the Sparstil or late style, which Adorno says was symbolic of Beethoven's rejection of the ordinary bourgeois world, one can also hear in these forbidding works a search for order and reliability. Maynard Solomon in his Beethoven Essays ventures the more personal thesis that the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony reflect Beethoven's declining health, his problems with his nephew and of course his horrific sense of personal loneliness; far from rejecting the world, they are attempts musically to come to new terms with it. "The Missa Solemnis," says Solomon, "has the implication of a double question to the deity: Am I merely mortal? Is there hope for eternal life?"

Naturally enough, the interrogatory music of this towering work can be given variously freighted interpretations. What is so impressive about Shaw's was that it was thoroughly, perhaps even insistenty, unneurotic. A recent recording of the work by Karajan (EMI) attempts the same feat, with the unintended effect, however, of rendering the music self satisfied, muddy, sleekly placid. Shaw's energy was focused less on startling detail than on creating a collective personality, that of a traveler perhaps, or of a questing pilgrim. The sounds and tempi were robust, never nervous or querulous. One felt in his conducting something often tried by younger conductors seeking an impression of elevated tranquillity, but rarely achieved. He also gained the illusion of complete naturalness, so that even in perilous spots like the devilish fugue at the end of the Credo, or in the perhaps more difficult Benedictus, whose soaringly serene lines defy normal intonation, Shaw let the music unfold, rather than declaim or announce itself. This is a total illusion, of course, since what goes into such sounds is immense work, manifestly concealed.

He had the soloists sit up near the chorus, at some distance from stage front, which is where they are usually placed. This somewhat took away from the bass's contribution, but it did contribute to the communal and associative effort of the whole. At only one point-in the Benedictus's extended violin obbligato played decently if somewhat monochromatically by Naoko Tanaka-did I feel that what was needed was a bit more striving and less natural-sounding tranquillity; as with much of Beethoven's late music written in a very high register, sublimity and a tense eeriness are its true hallmark, and it sounds merely awkward when it is played too unexcitedly. when it is played too unexcitedly.

Shaw's musical, or rather platform, presence suggests a saintly, incredibly modest man. Accordingly, he takes curtain calls from the back rows of the orchestra, as if to say it's not me, it's all of us, and Beethoven, of course. A bit corny perhaps, but the iron rigor of his performances shouldn't be underestimated either. He is the real thing, a great musician whose avoidance of self-conscious display sets him at odds with the Zubin Mehtas of this world. Perhaps you can do what he does if you are not entrusted with safekeeping a national institution like the Met or the Philharmonic, where you have to take positions about "us" every time you lift your arms or blow your nose. The peculiar thing about Shaw is that, unlike Celibidache, another older conductor of extraordinary attainments and uncompromising standards, he does not communicate marginality or irrelevance. It is as if the music were simply expressing itself. This is the finest aesthetic illusion of all.
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Title Annotation:Metropolitan Opera, New York, New York
Author:Said, Edward W.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Opera Review
Date:Mar 9, 1992
Previous Article:A Woman of Paris.
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