The Discovery Card

I feel a lot better about Philip Glass now that the New York Times has explained that he doesn’t so much create art these days as market a product. That, I suppose, makes him more of an entrepreneurial showman than a serious composer, and we may now judge him as such. Perhaps that also explains why so many influential critics who championed Glass’s innovative minimalist style in the seventies have given up on his recent music, dismissing it as creatively lazy and inconsequential. If that attitude pains Glass, he must, like Liberace, be crying all the way to the bank. His easy-listening, mind-numbing merchandise is in demand everywhere, and festivals of Glass abound, most recently at Lincoln Center Festival 2001, which presented three retrospective concerts and, at the New York State Theater, the American premiere of his 1991 collaboration with Robert Wilson, White Raven.

For anyone familiar with the work of Glass and Wilson, White Raven will hold few surprises, another grandiose pageant full of the pair’s familiar gestures and routines. This time, there is a linear theme of sorts to illustrate, one that revolves around the ideas of Portuguese discovery; the opera was commissioned by the government of Portugal to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the country’s golden age of global exploration, between 1490 and 1500. The characters described by Luisa Costa Gomes’s fanciful text are all looking for something. They include the usual Portuguese royals, Vasco da Gama, sailors and scientists and travelers, an anonymous writer, a menagerie of sideshow freaks including Siamese twins and a man with an elephant’s foot, two inquisitive children, a pair of ravens (black), and a Miss Universe – we even meet Judy Garland and the Tin Man in search of you know what.

Most of Wilson’s stock images turn up in this spectacle: the trademark traveling neon circles and lines, geometric shapes, phallic objects descending from above, silhouetted pantomimes, half-animal-half-human figures, etc. Much of it seems plain silly, such as the storm-at-sea shipwreck scene with its tossing cartoon waves and body parts bobbing on the surface. Mostly, though, the visuals looked tired, heavy-handed, and recycled, a collection of bland tableaux with little to challenge the mind or stimulate the imagination.

Ditto for Glass’s score, with its usual simpleminded syncopations, sappy tunes, awkward vocal writing, and gummy orchestration. No one in the cast gave an especially distinguished performance, probably because no one had any distinctive music to sing. The biggest part, the Writer, is a spoken role, but thanks to Lucinda Childs’s amplified mumbling, the words were incomprehensible. Dennis Russell Davies, today’s most authoritative Glass interpreter, kept the whole pretentious extravaganza together with his usual expertise and energy; this sophisticated musician’s continued enthusiasm for such touchy-feely tripe is truly astonishing.

As if to prove that there is more than one way to compose a minimalist opera these days, the festival also offered Salvatore Sciarrino’s Luci Mie Traditrici, written in 1998 and seen at LaGuardia Drama Theater in a production unveiled last March at the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels. Born in 1947, Sciarrino is one of Italy’s most prolific and admired composers, whose work, like that of most important Europeans, is almost totally unknown here. It was thoughtful of the festival management to augment the performances of his opera with a free concert at the Juilliard School, a program that featured Sciarrino’s Piano Sonata No. 2 and a suite for voice and chamber ensemble drawn from his 1979 opera based on Henry James’s The Aspern Papers.

Spare, ascetic, economic, austere – however one cares to term it, Sciarrino’s music is hardly an easy listen. Luci Mie Traditrici (“My Treacherous Eyes,” according to the official translation) distills the bare events of a notorious Renaissance adultery-and-murder case involving the composer Gesualdo, who dispatched his wife and her lover in 1590, into a 75-minute opera that makes Debussy’s famously wispy Pelléas et Mélisande seem as robust as Tosca. What we are given is the skeletal framework for a drama of passion, as the four singers – husband (Paul Armin Edelmann), wife (Annette Stricker), lover (Lawrence Zazzo), and spying servant (John Bowen) – carry on a fragmentary discourse that leads to tragedy, all accompanied by a sinister nocturne of murmuring, diaphanous, subtly shifting instrumental sound.

For those who can make the necessary inner surrender, Sciarrino’s disquieting but glisteningly hypnotic music casts a potent spell as it illustrates the action’s slow-motion symmetries, particularly effective in this elegant production conducted by Kazushi Ono, designed by Roland Aeschlimann, and directed by Trisha Brown. The performers move over an arclike space sliced diagonally by sawtooth ridges that rise and fall as the characters’ relationships gradually darken, a dance of death choreographed by Brown to create powerful tensions simply through the singers’ gestures and spatial placement. The whole experience was distinctly unsettling and provocative, precisely the kind of exploratory musical theater one expects to find at a festival.

Just as Wagner adapted the old norse legends for his monumental Ring cycle, music scholar Benjamin Bagby and theater artist Ping Chong have rifled the same material to create their more modest Edda, an 85-minute Lincoln Center Festival curiosity subtitled Viking Tales of Lust, Revenge, and Family, chanted in Old Icelandic, and acted out by Ensemble Sequentia.

Except for the texts, already far removed from the original oral tradition when they were written down in the thirteenth century, everything about this project is conjectural, including the music, based on whatever meager hints Bagby could glean from ancient Icelandic sources. No matter – greater creative license has been applied to less-promising reconstructive efforts. This one succeeds mainly through the bardic energy of Sequentia and Chong’s mystical darkened stage, where the performers, seated on platforms, glide in and out. Besides, the tales of Brynhild, Gudrun, Sigurd, and the rest are as haunting today as they were a thousand years ago.

White Raven
Composed by Philip Glass; text by Luisa Costa Gomes; staged by Robert Wilson.
Luci Mie Traditrici
Composed by Salvatore Sciarrino; conducted by Kazushi Ono; staged by Trisha Brown.
Created by Benjamin Bagby and Ping Chong; performed by Ensemble Sequentia.
All presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2001.

The Discovery Card