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Nights at the Opera

By Seth M. Kupferberg

Insofar as opera seasons are ever boldly innovative, this one promises to be so. For one thing, the title character of the New York City Opera's grand spring premiere, Henze's The Young Lord, is reportedly a gorilla. Even the Metropolitan Opera decided to be boldly innovative this year, rather in the manner of President Nixon playing peacemaker or President Bok playing basketball. The Met instituted student admissions ($4.50, half an hour before the performance), but its boldest innovation was something called a Look-In, in which Danny Kaye explained the joys of opera to an audience of school children and reporters from the national news magazines.

Look-Ins are the creation of Goeran Gentele, the Met's director-elect who was killed in a car crash last summer. Studies of their efficacy aren't available yet, but Gentele's famous dictum--"you've got to poison their minds young"--remains impressive. A few weeks ago, for example, a beaming little girl of about a year and a half wandered into the Crimson's newsroom and proceeded to disrupt things. She was wearing a button, nearly as big as she was, and the button said "Solidarity with Heroic Viet-namese Freedom Fighters." Gentele, a Swede, would have been proud.

The Metropolitan will make its annual excursion to Boston the week of April 23, with a program of six Italian operas and Carmen. Anyway Boston has been spawning its own opera companies so quickly that the Met's visit is no longer essential. The oldest and best is Sarah Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston, which attracted more than its share of national attention last year by producing Berlioz' Les Troyens, a mammoth two-part work that more established companies had been avoiding for years. Earlier this year the Boston Opera did a politicized Bartered Bride, and this weekend it's putting on Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment, with Kitty Carlisle of To Tell the Truth in a speaking role and Beverly Sills in a singing one.

The other groups aren't as established. The Lowell House Opera Society, Harvard's only entry now that its Leverett House rival seems to have vanished, is doing a double bill of Purcell's Indian Queen and Poulenc's Breasts of Tiresias, a funny, approachable and lyrical work with an Apollinaire-libretto involving a couple of sex changes and a lot of non sequiturs.

There was another rarely performed double bill at Agassiz this Fall--the New England Chamber Opera's production of Busoni's Arlecchino and Gounod's Gift of the Gods. There were also two first performances this week. The New England Regional Opera (NERO) gave Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men its East Coast professional premiere last weekend at the Loeb, and the Associate Artists' Opera Company gave Karl Heinrich Graun's Montezuma its American premiere last night in Boston.

Of Mice and Men, adapted from Steinbeck's play, got enthusiastic reviews at its world premiere in Seattle two years ago. Time reported that the audience sat in stunned silence before breaking into thunderous applause. My own acquaintance with Floyd's music, however, consisted of a less momentous scene from an earlier opera, Susannah, which a touring company of some sort, anticipating Gentele, brought to my high school.

The school's previous foray into high culture, a visit from a ballet troupe, had not been an unmixed success. Large sections of the audience applauded, to be sure--some even cheered and whistled--but only when the female dancers pirouetted quickly enough to raise their skirts above their waists. The school's administrators retained graphic images of the incident, their ability to remember such things being matched only by their ability to forget minor matters like education.

Frank Corsaro had not yet invented nudity in the opera, so the administrators presumably thought Carlisle Floyd would be safe. But just to make sure, they sent the chairman of the music department out first to explain the difference between proper and improper expressions of approval. What was proper at a baseball game, we were told, was improper at a ballet. Most of the audience had never been to a ballet, and the music chairman had conceivably never been to a baseball game, so his explanation didn't go over well, and the scene from Susannah was inevitably anticlimactic. Susannah also seemed to have some anticlimaxes built in. Apparently it was set in Tennessee, and suspension of disbelief in a buxom soprano singing lushly romantic arias about her upcoming journey to Nashville proved exceptionally difficult.

The problems of Of Mice and Men are different, and the Loeb's audience as one might expect, was considerably more polite. Floyd's score is competent and pleasant, and has several moments of real drama, notably an exultant second-act trio for the ranchhands who think they've found a home of their own at last. Steinbeck's play is effective enough to carry some of the rest, particularly since NERO's exemplary singers enunciate every word clearly.

Floyd's score isn't too individual. The ranch hands' trio breaks up verbal rhythms rather in the manner of The Rake's Progress, and the music also includes several hints of jazz, which generally end up sounding like the dull parts of Porgy and Bess. Most of the score, though, is unabashedly dramatic, or at least would like to be. Lacking Puccini's capacity for soaring anguish, Floyd can't pull his listeners out of themselves by their own heartstrings. Once the poisonous mediocrity of his characters' lives becomes vivid, one begins to long for relief from it, for an affirmative statement--any affirmative statement--a high flung vocal line, or a ringing trumpet call, or a verse of "Blow the Man Down." So that while Floyd's opera never completely loses our interest, it never grips it either.

NERO gave the work a remarkable performance; nearly every singer--all of them are from the Boston area--sang his part to perfection and, what is more unusual, acted convincingly as well. Benjamin Cox as Lennie and Niki as Candy's Old Dog were particularly outstanding.

Montezuma has, as Associated Artist's press releases modestly put it, "an unusual libretto by Frederick the Great." Graun was the flutist-emperor's court composer, and his duties included writing opera seria, all of which were naturally forgotten when baroque opera went out of style. The Associated Artists have resurrected Montezuma, with the castrati parts down an octave so that men can sing them.

There's little point in trying to follow the plot, which deals with the rape of Mexico by imperial Spain, because nothing ever happens in opera seria anyway. Graun's music is very pleasant, and ultimately quite moving.

But the real jewel of the season promises to be Kurt Weill's great Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which the Boston Opera is producing in the spring. Mahagonny has a Brecht libretto about the building of the capitalist paradise, the City of Nets, where everyone can do whatever he likes as long as he can pay for it. Mahogonny's best-known number is probably the Alabama-Song, one of two songs Brecht wrote in English, which the Doors popularized a few years ago. But there's so much great, furious music in Mahogonny that it's hard to imagine any production failing--although the only one I've seen, several years ago in New York, managed the trick convincingly. And watch for the cameo appearance of God just after the hero's electrocuted for failing to pay for two curtainrods and a bottle of whiskey.

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