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In Review > North America

Schoenberg in Hollywood

BOSTON
Boston Lyric Opera
11/17/18

In Review Schoenberg in Hollywood hdl 1118
Sarah Womble, Omar Ebrahim (as Arnold Schoenberg) and Jesse Darden in the world premiere of Tod Machover's Schoenberg in Hollywood at Boston Lyric Opera
Liza Voll Photography

WHAT WOULD A HOLLYWOOD MOVIE about the life of Arnold Schoenberg be like? Tod Machover’s Schoenberg in Hollywood—given its world premiere by Boston Lyric Opera on November 14 at Emerson College’s Paramount Center—poses an answer to that question (seen Nov. 17). Based on a scenario by the late Braham Murray, with a libretto by Simon Robson, Schoenberg in Hollywood more or less sketches Schoenberg’s biography using Hollywood tropes. The result is an engaging romp through the life of one of the most important musical figures of the twentieth century. Schoenberg is tight, entertaining, and fresh—but, ultimately, somewhat reductive.

Schoenberg in Hollywood opens with the composer having just arrived in Hollywood after fleeing Europe during WWII. The producer Irving Thalberg offers him the chance to compose the musical score to an upcoming film. The apparent difficulty of this choice prompts Schoenberg to ruminate on his life. These reminiscences form the bulk of the opera, and encompass Schoenberg’s childhood, his two marriages, critical struggles, and two World Wars. Participating in Schoenberg’s memories are a young man and woman, who enact various personages in Schoenberg’s life.

One of the successes of this production, directed by the celebrated choreographer Karole Armitage, is its marriage of media and music. (Schoenberg was originally scheduled to be directed by Braham Murray, who died suddenly in July 2018.) The production uses a film backdrop to guide us through Schoenberg’s life. The film melds perfectly with Machover’s writing, which adopts some of Schoenberg’s idioms while remaining accessible and evocative. This combination of live action, music, and film was alchemic, especially in its portrayal of the composer’s earliest memories. The filmed portions of these scenes consisted of point-of-view shots from baby Schoenberg’s perspective, intercut with images of the adult Schoenberg in a crib. The singers sometimes paralleled what was filmed, and other times watched, commented, or joined. Schoenberg’s easy way with popular culture influences is one of its strengths; those familiar with the work of the film director Charlie Kaufmann will see parallels in the opera’s depiction of memory.

Despite the plethora of creative associations in Schoenberg, the whole fell just short of being a sum of its parts, thanks to the sheer eclecticism of its aesthetic sources. When his wife commits adultery, Schoenberg turns into film noir detective; negative feedback from critics triggers a kinky cabaret show, with Schoenberg as star. All these detours are interesting, but the composer’s major life events register as disconnected and caricatured. Wouldn’t focusing on one theme in Schoenberg’s life have made for a stronger work? The theme that feels central to Machover’s opera is that of Schoenberg’s struggle with and allegiance to his Jewish identity. It recurs throughout his life, and mirrors the travails of his adherence to his musical principles.

The excellent three-person cast was headed by Omar Ebrahim’s superb Schoenberg. Ebrahim’s composer was portly, middle-aged, and egoistical. There is an interesting combination of reticence and zest that nicely represented Schoenberg’s warring fidelities to the old and the new. Jesse Darden and Sara Womble played the young man and the woman, respectively, offering beautiful contrast to Ebrahim’s older Schoenberg. Womble’s clear soprano was beguiling, particularly in the role of Schoenberg’s first and second wife, while Darden’s clear tenor brought youth and vigor to his roles. All three were miked—a decision for the best in a venue not designed for acoustic music. David Angus’s conducted with energy and drive, tackling all the different musical styles of Machover’s writing with gusto. The electronic instruments were a great touch, nicely conveying the wonderment that powered Schoenberg’s explorations of music.

Schoenberg in Hollywood never presented the composer’s life as anything more than just a series of interesting incidents, but at least it portrayed those incidents in a fresh, entertaining Hollywood-esque manner.  —Angelo Mao 



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