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Liverman, a noble James Meredith in Kommilitonen!
© Nan Melville 2012
A contingent from the Occupy Wall Street movement gathered outside Juilliard on November 16, staging a small demonstration at the U.S. premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies's new opera Kommilitonen! The organizers had clearly misapprehended the demographics of the local audience for contemporary works. ("Join New York City students as they occupy the favorite leisure activity of Wall Street's residents: Opera!") But the protest still resonated, echoing the theme of Kommilitonen! itself.
Setting a libretto by David Pountney, the opera weaves together — in short, vivid segments — three different narratives of youthful twentieth-century activism. Two of them portray unequivocally honorable battles: James Meredith's fight to integrate the University of Mississippi and the anti-Nazi protests of the student group Die Weisse Rose in Hitler's Germany. The events in the third are just as thoroughly ignoble — the bloodthirsty student rampages of China's Cultural Revolution.
On paper, the mixing of these three strains makes for an ambiguous intellectual argument: does the opera advocate for student activism? If so, how does one justify the inclusion of the Chinese story, with its depiction of inhuman violence? But as theater, Kommilitonen! is thoroughly convincing. The three stories bump up against each other in dynamic juxtaposition, inviting us to make links and fill in the spaces between them.
The glue holding it all together is, quite rightly, the music. Maxwell Davies relies on a wildly disparate set of pastiche elements — African–American spirituals, the lieder of Schumann and Schoenberg, Maoist patriotic marches. But the voice throughout remains uniquely his own. The music draws us into the action; even if the intellectual stance of the piece isn't always easy to divine, the musical argument is always clear. No composer is more gifted at conveying horror than Maxwell Davies; here, depicting the mob murder of a pair of Chinese intellectuals, an onstage band blared a march of stupefying banality, while chords of doom wafted up from the orchestra. The result was as terrifying a sound as I've ever heard in a theater. In Kommilitonen!, the septuagenarian composer has created a score with the vitality of youth itself.
This Juilliard Opera production was Kommilitonen!'s second mounting. (Co-commissioned by Juilliard and England's Royal Academy of Music, the opera had its world premiere in London last spring.) Both were in Pountney's own production. He has cannily written the work with a director's understanding of how it will play out onstage. His production moved with cinematic fluidity. The "set" consisted of just a few chairs and tables, with banners unfurling from the rafters. Its spareness allowed him to "cut" swiftly from scene to scene; the stage action hurtled forward, accentuating the dynamic nature of the piece.
The performance was a tribute to the skill and preparedness of Juilliard's students. As befits a "conservatory" opera, Kommilitonen! is a true ensemble work, offering solo opportunities to fully twenty-one singers. Juilliard's cast was strong down the line, with a number of standout performances. Wu, the son of the murdered Chinese "reactionaries," is an innocent young man forced into a wrenching moral compromise; the freshness of Wallis Giunta's mezzo-soprano kept the character's basic goodness in full view. Similarly, the sparkle in Deanna Breiwick's lyric soprano conveyed the youthful idealism of the Weisse Rose ringleader, Sophie Scholl. Noah Baetge brought a lyric tenor of bracing purity to the role of Scholl's colleague Christoph Probst. Best of all was baritone Will Liverman, noble in sound and bearing as James Meredith.
Kommilitonen! is a musically complex piece; it cannot be easy to play or sing. It makes Boris Godunov-like demands on the chorus, which is often pitted in clashing counterpoint against the orchestra and stage band. But under the authoritative leadership of Anne Manson, these disparate elements meshed with crystalline precision; the performers were awesomely exact in delivering the musical values that Maxwell Davies had demanded of them. The idealism portrayed in the opera found its correlative in the performance itself — an outpouring of high-minded youthful energy. After Juilliard's fiery Kommilitonen!, I couldn't help listening to the Occupy protesters with fresh ears.
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