Originality in the arts is a vague and overhyped virtue. Few works are completely original. All creative artists borrow from others, both masters they revere and contemporaries they may be in competition with.
Still, originality just comes through sometimes, as the composer Gregory Spears demonstrates in his personal, boldly quirky score for the wrenching, and sadly timely, opera “Fellow Travelers,” which had its New York premiere Friday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice as part of this year’s Prototype Festival fostering the creation of innovative opera. Mr. Spears music is richly evocative, but the borrowed elements are audaciously filtered through his own sensibilities.
Based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same title, “Fellow Travelers,” set in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era, tells a tragic story of two young men: Hawkins (Hawk), a State Department employee, and Tim, an idealist from New York. They have a love affair and become ensnared in the “lavender scare,” the hysteria that purged gay employees from the federal government. The librettist Greg Pierce deserves much credit for the dramatic urgency of the opera, which unfolds as a series of short, telling scenes, some of which overlap effectively.
The surprising musical approaches Mr. Spears often takes to these scenes, and the characters, hooked me right through. In a composer’s note, he describes his musical language as combining two disparate styles: American minimalism and the courtly, melismatic singing of medieval troubadours. Mr. Spears’s evocations of troubadours sometimes sound, intriguingly, like they have come by way of Ravel, or Britten, or Judy Collins. There are hints of neo-Classical Stravinsky, stretches of Baroque-like dance, a red-hot clarinet. Whole stretches of the score are driven by pulsing rhythmic figures and repetitive riffs that envelop Tim and Hawk in scary bliss, or, more menacingly, tap into the hysteria gripping the government.
Mr. Spears takes risks, right from the first tender, complex meeting between the two men. Tim (the appealing, youthful tenor Aaron Blake), just arrived from New York, is sitting on a bench in a park, all eager to work in government. The suave, confident Hawk (Joseph Lattanzi, a mellow-voiced, charismatic baritone), senses something about him, and begins a ritual of seduction.
As Tim has an epiphany of self-awareness, Mr. Spears dares to envelop these men in rapturous music of almost cinematic lushness, with opulent chords and fidgety inner voices, often floating over droning bass tones and an eerily repetitive inner pulse. Tim is a sweet, soft-spoken radical. Once his sexual desires are drawn out by Hawk, he leaps ahead and knows what he wants: commitment, domesticity and romance, even if it must be kept in the shadows. Hawk, for all his swagger, is actually weaker, someone who accepts the strictures of 1950s American life and gets his highs by his surreptitious defiance of societal mores.
Throughout the over two-hour length, George Manahan drew textured, colorful playing from the American Composers Orchestra. The simple, effective production, fluidly directed by Kevin Newbury, was first seen at the Cincinnati Opera, where “Fellow Travelers” had its premiere in 2016.
The cast of nine included several singers who took two or three roles. I almost wish the role of Mary, who works with Hawk, were larger, especially as sung so movingly by the soprano Devon Guthrie. Mary is a source of common sense, decency and tolerance. Mr. Spears, again surprising me, gives Mary curiously agitated and flighty music. But it somehow works. I kept thinking that Ms. Guthrie’s Mary should be running not just her office, but the whole State Department. We could use her now.
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