Got Mad Opera Disease? Emmeline, Bunyan Feed the Fire

New York has come down with mad opera disease. Rather suddenly–thanks to the dizzy economy, a new adventurousness at the Metropolitan Opera, the perked-up New York City Opera and our appetite for larger-than-life luridness (who’s writing the opera Monica ?)–opera is arousing a level of passion not unlike what those Romans must have felt at the spectacle of all those Christians being eaten by lions.

In fact, that’s just about what did happen at the Met’s two box-office smashes of the season–the post-camp Samson and Delilah , staged by Elijah Moshinsky, whose orgy of writhing Philistines would have given Hieronymus Bosch heartburn; and Robert Wilson’s production of Lohengrin , whose chic, Ice Age somnabulisms had the Wagner traditionalists calling for the director’s blood.

All the cheering at the Met a few weeks ago for the opera world’s sweetheart couple of the moment–Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu, making googly eyes at each other in Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet –was a demonstration of just how acute the hunger is these days for old-fashioned star power, even when the stars are distinctly low-wattage (and vocally mismatched) as compared, say, with Jussi Bjoerling and Bidu Sayao in the same roles. The raptness with which James Levine and his forces held a packed house for the five hours it takes the young knight Walther to get his prize song right in a lovingly conducted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , was a measure of how strong our communal yearning remains for the leadership of a good mensch –particularly one with the robust thoughtfulness of the most believable Hans Sachs I have seen in a long time, James Johnson, an American baritone who made a splendid Met debut. (Though someone should stop him from flinging Eva Johansson, the Eva of the night, so robustly at the heroic–if alarmingly corpulent–Walther of Ben Heppner.)

The most interesting success of the season, in many ways, was the City Opera’s production of Emmeline , by the contemporary American composer Tobias Picker. Opera would not have survived for nearly four centuries without the almost constant presence of a Wronged Woman–which may be another reason for its current allure–and in its title character Mr. Picker’s opera has a doozy.

Emmeline , which had its world premiere in Santa Fe in 1996, is adapted from Judith Rossner’s 1980 novel of the same name. The Rossner book was based on a true, latter-day Oedipus story that not even Nathaniel Hawthorne could have dreamed up: A young woman, living in Maine in the decades just before the Civil War, is sent at the age of 13 by her impoverished family to work in a cotton mill, where she is seduced and made pregnant by her boss. Forced to give up the baby, she resigns herself to spinsterhood until she falls in love and marries a stranger in town, a handsome railroad worker much younger than she. He turns out to be her long-lost son, and when the truth is revealed, he abandons her to live out her days in solitude.

Unless one counts Porgy and Bess , Showboat , Carousel , West Side Story and A Little Night Music , which for me rank among the great “operatic” works of any century, American opera has been a rather marginal affair, restricted by the refusal–or inability–of composers working outside the commercial theater to give full vent to that lyric impulse that has fired every true operatic masterpiece from Orfeo to Wozzeck . If Mr. Picker’s opera–his first–never becomes really memorable on that level, it did add up to an unforgettable piece of musical theater.

Mr. Picker, to his credit, is no pasticheur . Aside from an adroit use of the hymn “Rock of Ages” at the climactic moment, and a folkloric tunefulness to the ditty that Matthew Gurney, the young railroad worker, plays on his mouth organ, the opera’s score is strikingly free of ingratiating quotations of musical Americana. In keeping with the dark, ultimately heroic fortitude of its heroine, Emmeline doesn’t beg for popularity. It is, however, an indubitably American work in its musical eclecticism (echoes of everything from Aaron Copland to the academic atonalists to Philip Glass), its sturdy harmonic clarity and–most tellingly–its terrific pulsations. These range from the rhapsodic urgency of the heroine’s music, to the loony, mechanistic frenzy of the scenes in the cotton mill, to the churning impatience that fuels the arrival and departure of her young lover. Subtlety is not on display–those three great thumping chords that follow the revelation of Matthew Gurney’s maternity indicate that Mr. Picker could make a killing by scoring sequels to Scream .

Emmeline is proof that behind every successful opera is a superb libretto. Its text, by the poet J.D. McClatchy, is a marvel of fluid exposition (the opera plays at just under two hours), plain but characterful speech and homely, tersely phrased versifying that, when Puritanism is in full cry, sounds like some nasty 19th-century jingle: “Throw her out, I say!/ Damnation and decay;/ Out, I say./ Out, I say./ Disobey and be sent away!”

Bludgeoned as we are these days with tales of victimhood, I feared the worst. But Emmeline ‘s ending is a master stroke: Sitting alone in her half-finished house, the heroine is revisited in her mind by the two characters who set in motion all the awful things that happened to her–her powerful, narrowly pious Aunt Hannah and her weak, needy father. As we witness Emmeline’s replaying of their dreadful words, we realize with a sense of cathartic release that, although she has lost “everything,” she has somehow kept full possession of the only thing that really matters–herself.

Nor can I imagine a better production than the one that the Santa Fe team brought to the State Theater. Using a spare set of shifting white walls and a central “pit” that served, variously, as graveyard, factory floor and trysting ground, Francesca Zambello, the director, and Robert Israel, the designer, achieved an extraordinary visualization of the malevolent simplicities of American Puritanism and capitalism. The City Opera orchestra, conducted by George Manahan, played with an incisiveness and transparency that made the Picker score sound positively luminous. Every member of the cast seemed to have lived his or her character for years–most notably, Patricia Racette in the title role. Nothing on stage is harder to convey, or sustain, than a state of innocence, but this radiant young American singer, with her blooming, right-as-rain soprano, never faltered. When the audience rose to give Ms. Racette a standing ovation, they were cheering not just the performer but the character within the performer–the Emmeline she had so completely become.

Both the Met and the City Opera are winding up their seasons with exceptional productions of oddities–the Met with Elijah Moshinsky’s wonderfully garish The Makropulos Case , by Leos Janacek, and City Opera with Mark Lamos’ sparkling staging of Benjamin Britten’s and W.H. Auden’s Paul Bunyan , which originated a couple of summers ago at Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown.

One of the indisputable masterworks of 20th-century opera, Makropulos has been immeasurably improved since its disastrous opening night of several seasons ago (disastrous because of the fatal fall of one of the singers). In the pit is the finest Janacek conductor in the world, Charles Mackerras. In the title role of the 337-year-old diva is American opera’s finest dramatic actress, Catherine Malfitano, whose total command of the part obliterates the less than happy memory of Jessye Norman, for whom the production was initially mounted. And, best of all, the opera has been returned to its original language of Czech, whose pithiness of sound and sense is matched so eloquently by Janacek’s unfailingly stirring music.

With its pop-arty Thomas Hart Benton-ish design, the City Opera’s Paul Bunyan looks as smashing at the State Theater as it did at Glimmerglass, and it is sung and danced with charm by a uniformly strong cast. But somehow the work’s whimsical swings between sophistication and silliness, between preachiness and pastiche, seem less buoyant than they did in the bucolic surroundings of Cooperstown. Still, as the first, somewhat tentative foray into musical theater by Britten–a foreshadowing of the astonishing Peter Grimes that would follow only a few years later– Paul Bunyan is not to be missed by any serious operagoer, of whatever age. An important, previously neglected surprise, produced with delicate imagination, it is exactly why we need City Opera across the plaza from the Met–the sort of thing that has lately made New York, New York, a helluva opera town./

Got Mad Opera Disease? Emmeline, Bunyan Feed the Fire