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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky - Song Play in Two Acts (1995)
Martina Mühlpointner (Consuelo)
Kimako Xavier Trotman (Dewain)
Markus Alexander Neisser (Rick)
Jeannette Friedrich (Leila)
Darius de Haas (David)
Lilith Gardell (Tiffany)
Jonas Holst (Mike)
Young Opera Company Freiburg
The Band of Holst-Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon
rec. Freiburg 28 JanĖ1 Feb 2004; Vienna, 21 April 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.669003-04 [72:13 + 43:22]

Rock musicians looking to expand their songs invented "rock opera". Here we have a composer in the opera tradition Ė albeit a controversial one Ė writing an opera based on rock music. Itís a curious hybrid, but comes off surprisingly well. Thereís no orchestra. The music is played by a standard rock band ensemble augmented from time to time with saxophone and clarinet. The opera develops in three acts, but thereís no real development as such. The twenty three songs are quite separate and different, just like on a rock CD. Individually they donít relate to each other: taken as a whole, however, they create a sense of time and place, with minimal narrative. The action takes place in Los Angeles. Naturally, an earthquake acts as Deus ex machina to make the plot turn.

Itís very much a "rock opera" then, however one might try to ennoble it by giving it a fancy label. It even starts with what is described as a late 1970s "hit song". Then thereís a number "à la Stevie Wonder" Ė Adamsí words, not mine. Itís followed by a latin American duet and "hard blues rock à la Joe Cocker". Along the way we visit jazz, funk scat and "lyrical ballad à la Whitney Houston". Thereís even a number grandly named "aleatoric improvisation à la Witold Lutosławski in rock style". Itís certainly very clever, for it enables Adams to mimic the chosen style and carry it off in a more sophisticated manner. Of course we never lose sight of Adams himself, because he adds a quirkiness to all the pastiches which elevates them from the originals. Itís a delightful adventure in musical gender-bending and not bad at all as rock opera Ė much better indeed, than some of the more mock serious offerings. For people whoíve only known rock, this may come over as genius writing, for some of us it really is quite good. On the other hand, though, I could not escape the feeling that it was a tour de force for its own sake, like a restaurant serving fashionable takes on traditional dishes. Steak and chips with sushi, perhaps, or what they call "Pacific fusion" in trendy California eateries.

Adams compared his work to the Brecht and Weill classic, the Threepenny Opera. Itís ostensibly about seven working class people. Adams found June Jordan, the poet and civil rights activist to write the libretto. There is social comment here, for how could there not be when the characters are small-time criminals, illegal immigrants, gays and minorities? At the end, two of the characters stand up nobly for democracy, and the illegal immigrant vows to go back to El Salvador to fight for human rights. Itís about as analytical and realistic as a cartoon. But maybe itís supposed to be a fairy tale, in the sense that opera is fantasy, where improbable things are justified by gorgeous music? Maybe Adams is having the last laugh, on us.

The piece comes off primarily because the performances are totally committed. The Young Opera Company Freiburg was founded for a production of Holstís Savîtri. Hence the name of the orchestra, The Band of the Holst-Sinfonietta. . They specialize in modern chamber opera and have performed Waltonís The Bear and Rihmís Jakob Lenz. They may be young but they are technically well accomplished. Kimako Xavier Trotman stands out as Dewain, the hardman and convict with a soft side, who wants to become a lawyer and fight for justice. His voice is agile and muscular, easily making the transition from ghetto music to the elevated declarations of hope at the culmination of the opera, when he discovers freedom and love. His is a distinctive, unusual voice I hope weíll be hearing more of. He has performed in the Vienna Volksoper and the Alice Tully Hall, so has the track record. He is also a Fulbright scholar and Juilliard graduate, who speaks six languages and writes pop songs. If anyone can convincingly span the gap between popular and "serious" music, itís someone like him.

Anne Ozorio

see also review by Dominy Clements



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