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An Operatic Gem for Any Era

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/04/2014 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in F Major, K. 494 – Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
Steven Stucky/Jeremy Denk: The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) (New York Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)

Jennifer Zetlan (Soprano), Rachel Calloway, Peabody Southwell (Mezzo-Sopranos), Dominic Armstrong, Keith Jameson (Tenors), Kim Josephson (Baritone), Aubreay Allicock, Ashraf Sewailam (Bass-Baritones)
Jeremy Denk (Piano), The Knights, Robert Spano (Conductor)
Mary Birnbaum (Director)

J. Zetlan (Mozart), A.Sewailam (Beethoven), D.Armstrong (Haydn) (© Timothy Norris)

”Where Is Charles Rosen??? Where Is Charles Rosen???”
L. van Beethoven, W.A. Mozart, Josef Haydn

We open in heaven, with Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn bored to hell. Nothing to do. Papa Haydn parodies his nickname with a Pa-pa-pa-Papageno line. Mozart writes to Hollywood hopelessly asking for royalties on the movie Amadeus. Beethoven whiles his time making up German words for Scrabble. Even worse, the New York Times has been delivered to their cloud, with a story that Classical Music is dead. Nobody goes to hear their music any more.

Somehow, Papa Haydn’s discovers a book about their music, The Classical Style, a book which praises, enlightens, extols, and illuminates all three of them. And with this one (real) book, by (real, recently deceased) Charles Rosen, these three realize they have to meet Charles Rosen, for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is to discover what the hell–sorry, what the heaven–all of their music was worth.

And that beginning, which looks cute with my insufficient words, is the subject of a 75-minute gem of an opera. A gem which is actually inevitable, since the libretto was written by pianist, master-writer Jeremy Denk, and the music is by one of the most inventive composers of our time, Stephen Stucky.

In a way, The Classical Style is opera buffa. The composers are not satires of themselves, but distorted mirrors. The super-serious Ludwig, the adorable Wolfie, the practical Papa. But Charles Rosen is real enough. Not arrogant, but certainly aware of his own importance, his own words spoken with actual authority. For he is the opposite of a musicologist who is a bit buffoonish, but who serves a purpose. (And comes to a grisly Don Giovanni-ish ending).

That is Buffa. But a scene in the bar parrots Ben Jonson’s Comedy of Humors, though in this case, the humors encompass the three tones of the Classical Harmonic Circle. The narcissistic Tonic, the sulking Dominant, the alluring Sub-Dominant.

And the post-Classical figures as well. The “unchained unmoored” Seventh Chord of Wagner’s Tristan, ridding the world of that classic circle. And Robert Schumann, the Romantic heir (ironically, the soon crazed composer is called “the emotional center”), in a moving conversation with Rosen, about the dying of one style, the birth of another.

How does this turn into an opera? With glee, japery, knowledge, the transcendence of metaphors into life, the elevation of Rosen’s wisdom into the reality of music. While the authors call this an “opera (sort of)”, it is a real opera, with seven scenes, ranging from heaven to Charles Rosen’s apartment (reality again: he’s too busy creating profundities to eating his dinner), to the tavern to Juilliard School, where a particularly boring “symposium on classical music” is taking place.

The characters change too. The only prop is the back of a piano (which serves as a bar counter). Dominic Gardner is the bartender–and the bewigged Haydn. Ashraf Sewailam is the super-serious Beethoven and Mozart’s Commendatore. (More on Giovanni later), The two females play several roles brilliantly, and Charles Rosen–proper, self-possessed, profound, scarily smart–is played by the great Met baritone Kim Josephon. But with a black eyepatch, he is also that dangerous Wagnerian Tristan chord.

The direction by Mary Birnbaum is so swift, so clever, and (aside from one bar-fight) so effective, that one never worries about the absurdity of it all. For The Classic Style has–like art itself–the verisimilitude of artistic honesty.

S. Stucky, J. Denk (© Courtesy of the artists)

But now we come to the creational crux of the matter. Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky.

Denk’s peripatetic genius is so well known that it needs no introduction. Indeed, his introductory all-too-short Mozart piano introduction was so warm, so personal that initially I thought, “Who the hell needs an opera when we could have Denk’s Mozart?”

But Denk himself admits to having been flummoxed after a dinner with Rosen, such wisdom, such energy being so confounding. Thus the opera. And thus, Denk’s libretto, filled with comic joys of past and present. After all, when one is in eternal heaven, time, past and present, has no meaning. And the three composers can berate themselves, befriend themselves, speak of their creations in the most comic terms without once belittling their achievements.

(I began taking down quotes, but gave up. These were not bons mots, or clever word-plays. These were jests which George Bernard Shaw would have approved for his own music reviews.)

I was prepared for Denk. I was not prepared for the Steven Stucky’s music of quotes and quotes on quotes. Unlike the brilliant structure Berio built in Sinfonia, these musical quotes dealt with the words themselves. At times they were literal (Rosen speaking of Opus 111, the strings imitating the piano trills), at times they could play variations on Tristan, but more often Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven could be sung and played as naturally as they could be inspired.

Stucky and Denk did have their word/music puns when necessary. When the composers visit Mr. Rosen, we hear a loud knocking at the door. Could it be Beethoven’s “fate”? Ah, yes, we think. And then we find it’s Mozart’s Commendatore, an equally fate-filled rapping, ready to take somebody down to hell.

But essentially, the quotati8ons, the arias, the ensemble pieces became not smart-ass moments, but as organic moments for an opera which was organically concise.

One could never forget the brilliant orchestral ensemble, The Knights, who, even after many a rehearsal, couldn’t hold back their laughter. Or Robert Spano, a conductor whose defection from Brooklyn several years ago, can be forgiven here.

Finally, I was wondering what to compare this opera to. The swiftness puts it in the Mavra class. One could think of Rake’s Progress as well. The joy of language, both musical and verbal, makes one think of Tom Stoppard.

Yet in the very last scene, when Rosen and Schumann speak of how one style ends, another begins, one realizes that The Classical Style is as moving as it is mirthful. Like any art, it is incomparable–and unrepeatable. This is truly great art. Not only singular and totally satisfying, but by that last so-touching scene both dramatically electrifying and emotionally poignant.

Harry Rolnick



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