Nonagenarian Elliott Carter Scores With His First Opera

Posted: March 07, 2000

NEW YORK — Some of the best operas are nonconformists. Fidelio, with its romantic leanings, was one. Pelleas et Melisande's paucity of traditional arias still often upsets regressive operaphiles. Now Elliott Carter has set out to stretch the genre again, and he succeeds wonderfully with his first opera.

But What Next?, performed Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall in enhanced concert-opera form (costumes, no sets) by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is a something of a throwback. With a trenchant and colorful libretto by New York Times music critic Paul Griffiths, Carter's work can easily be thought of as a short, symbolist drama in the tradition of Maeterlinck. The characters of the one-act opera don't take the forms Maeterlinck would have given them. Instead, they are everyday, late-20th-century personifications of everyday, late-20th-century societal characteristics. Or ills.

Rose, an opera singer, stands for the kind of youth and total narcissism you can find by flipping on MTV. Harry or Larry (he's not sure of his name) is an unctuous drifter type. Mama is nostalgia for the collective memory of traditional family. Zen is a Clintonesque figure ("It depends on what you mean by believe," he says). Stella, a glamorous astronomer, is science - a kind of brain in a dress. Kid, sung by a boy alto, might be thought of as youth, though his character is the least developed of the six.

Mama sums up their plight best: "There has been some kind of accident," she sings. "We are completely unharmed, as far as we can tell, but nevertheless in need of help."

The help they need is this: They don't know who they are, who they are to each other, what their purpose is.

The questions are inevitably more important than the answers, the authors decide. Carter has said he had been thinking of Jacques Tati's Traffic, the 1970 car-crash film, prior to writing the opera. Carter's six may have been involved in a car crash, or maybe an earthquake. A roar of percussion depicts the disaster, with the help of trash cans, a thunder roll, a washboard, gongs and other instruments. But whatever the disaster that besets the characters, a post-apocalyptic haze fogs in their logic as they wake. They form only syllables at first - "star-. . ." - with each character defining himself or herself by completing the word.

"Starlings," sings Rose the opera singer with a birdlike melody.

"Startle," says Harry (or Larry).

"Starch," utters Mama.

"Starving!" cries Kid, concerned only with food throughout the piece.

Instead of moving along from event to event, revelation to revelation, the narrative is a free-floating mass of human characteristics groping for the why.

Carter is 91, and What Next?, composed in 1997 and 1998, is his first opera. It was premiered in Berlin in September by the Berlin Staatsoper and was given its U.S. premiere almost two weeks ago in Chicago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Carter, of course, has suffered under the reputation of being a composer of dense, complex music (read: not for general consumption).

Leaving aside any generalization of Carter's music for now, there is a great deal of pleasure in this Carter score. Long, lyrical lines are contrasted with music of great muscularity. A melancholy English horn solo in an orchestral interlude interrupts itself with silence as strings strike quiet, bleak chords, creating the opera's emotional nadir.

A better cast could hardly be imagined. Contralto Hilary Summers as the velvet-voiced Stella perfectly matched pitch and rich colors to pizzicato strings; soprano Simone Nold was a lithe, silly Rose.

A word about the Barenboim's orchestra. Musically, the group is on quite solid ground, although it is in need of minor renovations - specifically in the trumpet section, which turned crass in Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat in the second half of the program. But as an organization, it is a model that Philadelphia can only look upon with envy.

It is recording commercially. It is broadcasting nationally. Populists encounter its sounds in the new Fantasia/2000. It is connecting with connoisseurs in What Next? Barenboim and some of his musicians recognized the huge crossover market with a recent disc of Ellington tunes. It's not because Chicago has the better orchestra that it has found visibility and purpose in the overserved orchestral marketplace. Chicago has figured out what's next, and it is doing it.

What Next?

Performed Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim conducting.

No additional performances.

Rose.......... Simone Nold

Harry (or Larry)..........

Hanno Muller-Brachmann

Mama.......... Lynne Dawson

Zen.......... William Joyner

Stella.......... Hilary Summers

Kid.......... Michael John Devine

Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is pdobrin@phillynews.com

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