NEW YORK CITY: The Classical Style
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In Review > North America

The Classical Style

NEW YORK CITY
Zankel Hall | Carnegie Hall
12/4/14

Without a doubt, the most memorable aspect of the East Coast premiere of The Classical Style —Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk’s opera based on Charles Rosen’s classic 1972 text about Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — was the laughter. From the audience, that is: almost nonstop belly laughs, giggles, guffaws, snorts, groans, and stifled screams. This is worth mentioning up front because it is something that happens extremely rarely in the modern-day concert hall or opera house, and an unfamiliar feeling of hilarity colored the whole evening. It’s a giddy, over-the-top comedy that lovingly satirizes Rosen, his book, and pretty much every ludicrous aspect of classical music as it now exists.  

The Classical Style received a fair amount of buzz when was first performed at the Ojai Festival in June 2014, with subsequent West Coast performances at Cal Performances and Ojai North. On December 4 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, the seventy-minute opera played to a packed house skewed heavily toward musicians, artist managers, and other industry professionals. The opera opens with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven in heaven, a sort of retirement home where they are playing Scrabble, and totally bored. “Weltanschauung! Triple word score for 183 points!” shouts Beethoven, jumping to his feet. Mozart, in the midst of writing a letter protesting the unauthorized use of his music in the 1984 movie Amadeus, glances over and plays “Scheisse,” for 187 points. (Haydn plays simply “Bier.”) Looking down on modern-day earth, the three are aghast to see newspaper headlines about the death of classical music. “Orchestras aren’t balancing their budgets! Opera companies are folding! It’s not enough to be great anymore,” they complain. “We need to be relevant.” They discover Rosen’s book and leave heaven in search of him, in the hope that he can help them regain their mojo. Subsequent scenes take place in a bar whose patrons include the three fundamental harmonies of the Classical Style (Dominant, Tonic, and poor beleaguered Subdominant, who just “can’t resolve”); Rosen’s apartment; and an academic symposium on Sonata Form. One of the funniest fictional characters is Snibblesworth, a musicologist at the University of California at Berkeley and self-important assistant to Richard Taruskin, whose campy aria includes a long list of his profession’s response to Beethoven: thousands of essays on everything from metronome markings to gender constructs. 

Robert Spano conducted the chamber orchestra The Knights in a tight performance that sparkled with electricity. The orchestra, composed of top-notch New York instrumentalists and placed onstage with the singers, threw itself into the score’s “fake classical style,” as Stucky has described it, which includes the chance to illustrate things like the circle of fifths, Beethoven’s endless piano trills, and Wagner’s diminished sevenths in the Flying Dutchman or the endlessly unresolving Tristan Chord. 

In Mary Birnbaum’s brisk production, each madcap scene segued cleverly to the next, and props and costumes were minimal, limited mostly to wigs and also a cameo appearance of a Wotan eye patch. 

Standouts in the excellent cast were soprano Jennifer Zetlan as Mozart (briefly doubling in the role of Donna Anna), whose coloratura feats were matched by great comic timing; the charismatic bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock as the self-centered Tonic, whose aria “Me. Me. Me,” was sidesplittingly funny; the pompous, overbearing Beethoven of bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam; and tenor Keith Jameson as Snibblesworth, a picture of geeky academic earnestness. 

In addition to playing Haydn, tenor Dominic Armstrong portrayed the wise-cracking, world-weary Bartender, who is in love with the sultry Subdominant, sung by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, who has a pleasing bite to her timbre. Southwell also doubled briefly as a melancholic Robert Schumann, who laments the reality that he will never live up to the heights attained by his idol, Beethoven. The more soft-grained mezzo Rachel Calloway sang the roles of Dominant, a second musicologist, and a music student trying unsuccessfully to escort Charles Rosen to the symposium on Sonata Form.        

And then there’s Rosen himself, sung with passion and gusto by baritone Kim Josephson, who actually bears a resemblance to Rosen. The Classical Style is a poignant love-letter to the great pianist/lecturer (1927-2012), who spends the opera eloquently declaiming passages from his most famous book, which itself is a love-letter to the Big Three classical composers, deities of a period that ended with the advent of Romantic era. At the end there is a swift mood shift toward the serious, and Rosen’s heartbreaking description of how Beethoven, despite living to become the most famous living composer of his time, had become musically out of fashion — beside the point — by the 1820s. Musical style had moved on. 

The Classical Style is a geek-fest for lovers of classical music, with wall-to-wall musical references and jokes. The opera will be a lot funnier to anyone who has studied classical music or cares about it a great deal, and considerably less so to those who have not — a fact that may limit its potential for future performances. It’s a little like sitting in on a late-night gab session with the some of the cleverest classical musicians you know. This is an opera where instead of humming the tunes when you leave, you want to share the funniest lines with your friends. One of the repeating jokes is that when Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven come to earth, virtually no-one recognizes them. They have become symbols, busts on pianos, and revered masters of the all-capital-letters Classical Style, a term the composers themselves don’t recognize. It’s funny and sad at the same time, a commentary on how hard it is to recognize greatness in the moment and how much easier it is to yearn for the past. spacer 

JENNIFER MELICK

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