An Opera That Flies

On the Verge:The Seagull's fragile women, from left, Amy Shoremount (Nina), Keri Behan (Masha), and Amy Gough (Arkadina).Photo: Carol Rosegg

For five charmed years back in the early seventies, Thomas Pasatieri, not yet 30, was America’s operatic wunderkind, turning out new scores even faster than Donizetti and enjoying prominent productions across the country. The regional opera scene was just beginning to gather steam, companies needed accessible new works to attract prestige, press, and donors without alienating audiences, and Pasatieri provided exactly the right stuff. His operas were melodic, lushly scored, highly theatrical, and based on such classy literary sources as Molière, Yeats, James, Chekhov, and Unamuno. Between 1971 and 1976, there were high-profile Pasatieri premieres from Seattle to Baltimore, but soon it was all over. The commissions stopped, the composer disappeared into Hollywood to begin a new career as a film scorer, and his operas vanished from sight.

Has the time come for a second act? The Manhattan School recently resurrected The Seagull, first performed in Houston in 1974, and made that look like a distinct possibility. Having seen or heard most of Pasatieri’s seventeen operas, I would say that The Seagull was his finest moment. Back in the seventies, when new operas were an even tougher sell than they are today, it was no small feat for a 28-year-old composer to show such an easy command of the traditional operatic virtues, basic techniques that few American composers have ever mastered: a feeling for correct dramatic pacing, when to clinch a key emotional moment through lyrical expansion, a sure ear for natural vocal declamation, the ability to establish atmosphere without clogging the action. All this The Seagull manages seamlessly.

The Chekhov play was cleverly reduced and adapted for operatic purposes by Kenward Elmslie, the best librettist in the business at the time, one who also worked to good effect with Ned Rorem and Jack Beeson. The key conversations have been preserved, the tangled relationships clearly delineated, the lyrical moments flawlessly set up. Whether one responds to Pasatieri’s conservative idiom or not is something else. For my taste, his lush postromantic music can get rather sweaty for Chekhov’s fragile, bittersweet characters, the harmonic textures sometimes seem too thick and clotted, and there is a fair amount of note spinning. Even at that, the composer has created many effective operatic moments for the major characters, who are all given opportunities to show off their voices. No wonder so many talented American singers, both established stars and youngsters on the verge of major careers, were eager to sing in Pasatieri’s operas 30 years ago. As directed by Frank Corsaro, The Seagull had an especially starry lineup for its premiere in Houston: Frederica von Stade, Evelyn Lear, Patricia Wells, John Reardon, and Richard Stilwell, with Catherine Malfitano in the second cast.

No apologies need be made for the Manhattan School production, fluidly directed by Mark Harrison, handsomely designed by Dipu Gupta, and under the firm musical direction of David Gilbert. Amy Shoremount as the abandoned Nina, Amy Gough as the self-centered actress Arkadina, and Keri Behan as the embittered Masha sang with vocal authority, and if Raymond Ayers (Constantine) and Matthew Worth (Trigorin) seemed a bit pallid in comparison, such is the nature of these vacillating characters.

While revising The Seagull’s original three acts into two for this production, the composer apparently felt the opera bug bite him once again and began to think seriously about the possibility of writing opera No. 18. Who knows? The scene today is far more hospitable to new American operas than it was in the seventies, and Pasatieri could easily become a contender once again.

Perhaps the most conservative composer of genius who ever lived, Bach would surely have been puzzled and perplexed by the four highly spiced Passions commissioned by the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the great man’s death in 2000. Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Wolfgang Rihm – composers whose cultural, religious, and musical priorities could not be more diverse – responded by writing works of startling originality. It’s a pity that the Brooklyn Academy of Music could not have presented the complete cycle, but at least we heard two out of four. A few months ago, Golijov’s St. Mark Passion made a big impression at bam, and earlier this month Tan Dun’s Water Passion After St. Matthew arrived there for three performances.

This, I fear, is the least of the group, more a bit of slick showmanship for the easily impressed than a serious piece of music. Striking it certainly is. Seventeen large illuminated bowls of water in the form of a cross separate a chorus (the Dessoff Choirs) that uses various exotic vocal techniques, from Mongolian overtone singing to Bach chorale imitations, and plays hand bells and rattles thunder sheets as well. Three percussionists performing on various aqueous instruments (soda bottles, water gong, water drums, etc.) are stationed at three points of the cross, with a solo soprano (Elizabeth Keusch), bass (Hao Jiang Tian), violinist (Cho-Liang Lin), cellist (Maya Beiser), and spotlit conductor (Tan Dun himself) at the foot.

For 105 minutes, with a pointless intermission, the Passion more or less traces the familiar story accompanied by a collection of sound effects that are not especially interesting in themselves, let alone arranged to cohere into a substantial musical statement. The chorus mostly natters in a monotone, the soprano squeals like a stuck pig, the percussion instruments gurgle solemnly, the string soloists noodle, and Tan stands in the middle of it all sending out anguished conductorial signals.

I realize that Tan is a certified genius and the hottest composer around, having won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award and an Academy Award for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Musical America has just named him composer of the year; and the Metropolitan Opera has commissioned him to write The Last Emperor for Plácido Domingo. Despite all that, the Water Passion sounds suspiciously like pretentious b.s. to me, and, as Gwendolyn Fairfax observes, I am never wrong.

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The Seagull
Revival of the opera by Thomas Pasatieri, based on the Chekhov play.

Water Passion After St. Matthew
Oratorio by Tan Dun.

An Opera That Flies