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The Classical Style: An Opera (of sorts) The Cows of Apollo (or, the Invention of Music) 

ASPEN
Aspen Music Festival
7/30/15

THE CLASSICAL STYLE: An Opera (of sorts) overflows with musical in-jokes. The work had been semi-staged in Ojai and New York, and was finally fully staged as part of the Aspen Music Festival this past summer. As seen in the intimate Wheeler Opera House (July 30), the uproarious, scatter-shot collaboration of composer Steven Stucky and librettist Jeremy Denk comes off as a sort of Coolness Test. At least, it seemed to be such for the less-than-capacity audience gathered for a double bill of twenty-first-century opera farces. In-jokes are great fun — when you get the joke. Otherwise, there's an uncomfortable feeling of being left out.

For starters, becoming a member of The Classical Style's in-crowd requires solid familiarity with the orchestral and operatic works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, since subtly used snippets from these musical giants abound. It also helps to be aware of the late musicologist Charles Rosen and his dry but highly regarded examination of the era dominated by the Big Three — that book, after all, gave the opera its title. Some knowledge of music theory is beneficial, as well, notably in a barroom scene that riffs on tonic, dominant and subdominant chords, so common in Classical-Era music. Here those popular I-V-IV chords are personified by three lovesick characters (Micah Schroeder, Allysson Dezii and Jazimina MacNeil) who meet in a tavern called the Double Bar (Get it?). OK, so you don't need to know all that musical jargon, and you need not be expert in the music of the Classical Period. And since Rosen is a character (portrayed with delicious pomposity by Johnathan McCullough), anyone unfamiliar with his writings can at least discover what a scholarly bore he apparently was. 

But even the in-crowd might have been befuddled by the quirky storyline. It's a charming notion, sending those three Classical Era geniuses into the modern world.  Their amusing jabs at each other are fun, but it's never clear why those guys descended from Heaven, leaving a Scrabble game behind, to spend most of the seventy-minute work desperately seeking Rosen. That said, amid Stucky's agreeable hodgepodge of modernist and old-fashioned music, and Denk's clever but wordy text, there is engaging shtick. It's funny when Mozart (soprano Sarah Vautour) writes Hollywood requesting a cut of the profits from Amadeus, or when the eye-patched McCullough staggers in as the Tristan Chord (no explanation necessary for Opera News readers). And there are plenty of pokes at musicologists. The obnoxious student Snibblesworth (tenor Mark Williams) informs Beethoven of his enduring fame by enumerating all the books, symposia, recordings, concerts, etc. devoted to the Master —  with accompaniment from Leporello's “Catalogue” Aria (Get it?). 

This staging, performed enthusiastically by members of the Aspen Opera Theater Center, and directed briskly by Edward Berkeley, served as a rewarding vehicle for the wigged Big Three. Vautour's Mozart teamed nicely with tenor Joseph Leppek, who did his best with Haydn's minimal involvement, and basso Andrew Munn, suitably gruff as Beethoven. The trio displayed fine singing and decent acting, each doubling in smaller roles along with the rest of the cast. Alas, Classical Style's curious ending fell flat, as MacNeil's Schumann quietly explained the Progress of Art to a disheartened Rosen. Musically, all moved along pleasantly, thanks to the experienced leadership of Aspen Festival music director Robert Spano (who'd led the opera's two previous productions). He brought just the right touch of lightness to his capable, ever-busy ensemble. Most of the Wheeler crowd seemed to get many of the jokes — but not everyone guffawed. Perhaps future productions could employ super-title screens to project explanatory footnotes.

There were no in-jokes in the second half of this nutty night of opera at the Wheeler — although familiarity with Greek mythology proved helpful. The Cows of Apollo (or, the Invention of Music) is described as a “Masque in One Act,” composed by Christopher Theofanidis with a libretto by William M. Hoffman. This bit of silliness was commissioned by Spano's Brooklyn Philharmonic and had its premiere in 2001. Based on ancient, incomplete scraps of a satyr play by Sophocles, the story concerns the theft of Apollo's beloved cows and the search for the beasts by a group of goat-horned satyrs. The myth tells of their discovery of said cows in a cave occupied by Hermes, whose playing on a lyre astonishes all, and serves as the moment when the world discovers music. Here, Berkeley wisely took nothing seriously, permitting his toga-clad cast to mug unblushingly, allowing Apollo (baritone Nicholas Martorano) to strut about arrogantly in his gold shoes. By skipping past the satyrs' adventures in locating those bovines, Theofanidis and Hoffman made the daring decision to hastily unveil Hermes (Tyler Stahl) as a screaming heavy-metal singer/guitarist, backed by pounding bass and drums. This is quite a lively surprise for opera lovers, though the joke quickly wears out its welcome. An even bigger surprise came when the entire cast joined together for a Kumbaya-flavored chorale finale. There was first-rate singing from soprano Elizabeth Novella, delivering a lovely aria as Maia, and equally secure work from baritone Andrew Dwan's Silenus. Cows served as a modest dessert following The Classical Style. Such goofy hijinks might bring a fresh breeze to the world of contemporary opera. But these flimsy works demonstrate how composers and librettists often try too hard to be hip — whether in thumbing their noses at “serious” music or trying to impress younger audiences with tacky, out-of-place rock 'n' roll. —Marc Shulgold 

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