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The Classical Style: An Opera (of sorts)
The Classical Style in Ojai, with Zetlan, Josephson, Sewailam and Armstrong
© Timothy Norris 2014
An opera in which musicologist Charles Rosen is the hero and his celebrated magnum opus, The Classical Style, is the main object of attention sounded like a rather improbable undertaking. This much was clear from the talks and interviews preceding the world premiere of Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk's work The Classical Style: An Opera (of sorts) at this year's Ojai Festival (seen June 13). Stucky evidently had his doubts, but Denk's witty libretto swayed him.
The Classical Style is a free-ranging, often bizarre fantasy in which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, ensconced in boredom in Heaven, become panicked by reports of a decline of interest in classical music on Earth and a perception that human audiences find their music stale. After reading Rosen's Classical Style,they descend to Earth and only manage to make contact with the author after enduring an excruciating musicological symposium at UC Berkeley. Once they meet with Rosen, he persuades them that it is inevitable that their music, indisputably great as it is, must grow out of fashion. The "Big Three" return to Heaven, and the opera ends with Rosen quietly meditating, in the company of Robert Schumann, on the inevitability of change in music. The plot is enlivened by multiple farcical episodes, including some bar scenes (in both senses of the word) in which the characters Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant try to resolve their rather squalid emotional dependency on each other.
At times the performance veered close to the sophomoric humor of an end-of-year fraternity or sorority review, but it never arrived there. The opera is hugely entertaining, not least because Steven Stucky is a parodist of genius whose knowledge of the language of classical music over the past 250 years is astoundingly detailed and seemingly infinite. The majority of the score is based on the music of the Big Three, and Stucky was clearly most at ease and enjoying himself as he parodied Mozart. A revenge aria, in which Mozart inveighs against Hollywood producers for not paying him royalties for Amadeus, and a hilarious satire of contemporary musicology, based on the catalogue aria, are masterpieces of parody. The score refers most frequently to Don Giovanni but is shot through with allusions to Così, Fidelio and a whole range of classical orchestral works. We were persistently reminded, in the orchestra and vocal lines, of works that dissolved classicism, above all those by Wagner and Richard Strauss. The key scene came when a shabby old man with a patch over his eye shuffled onstage and, in a dark parody of Wotan's monologue from Die Walküre to the accompaniment of Tristan chords, foretold the trackless chaos that music faces once classical tonality has been dissolved. This was not just parody but powerfully symbolic dramatic action. It heralded in a tone of seriousness, modulating toward the sublime, in which the Big Three, kindly admonished by Rosen, accept that all things change, and nothing can be relevant forever. It was an ending that touched tragedy.
The Classical Style received a wonderfully lively and energetic first performance from a cast of eight who played eighteen roles. Kim Josephson, as Charles Rosen (and Wotan), was the still, dignified center of the riotous action; Dominic Armstrong, Jennifer Zetlan and Ashraf Sewailam played Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, respectively, initially in comic-book fashion, later in performances touched with pathos; Aubrey Allicock, Rachel Calloway and Peabody Southwell were gloriously self-indulgent as Tonic, Dominant and Subdominant, providing a most enlightening lesson in the nature of tonality and the mutual dependency of chords. Keith Jameson played the musicologist, Snibblesworth, the butt of everybody's humor, with infuriating versatility. Robert Spano conducted that wonderful New York ensemble the Knights with a thoroughness and gusto that elicited the rich allusiveness of Stucky's score.
As the orchestra had to be accommodated onstage, director Mary Birnbaum had only the front ten feet or so of the Libby Bowl stage on which to block the production, which led to a highlighting of the more farcical and parodic aspects of the action. Perhaps future productions, of which there should be many, may take place with the orchestra in its pit and a greater degree of scenic illusion onstage. When that happens, the moving, consequential aspects of this highly effective piece of theater may come more to the fore.
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