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David LANG (b 1957) The Loser, an opera based on a novel by Thomas Bernhard (2016)
Rod Gilfry (baritone), Conrad Tao (piano)
Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble/Lesley Leighton
rec. Sear Sound, New York and Lucy’s Meat Market, Los Angeles
Libretto included CANTALOUPE CA21155 [58:38]
It’s the second time in 2020 I’ve encountered music inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s rather Kafkaesque novel Der Untergeher, which translates as ‘The Loser’ (the first time was on Rockaby – a fine Kairos issue dedicated to the singular music of Alwynne Pritchard - review) If Glenn Gould is a central figure in the plot, the work is not really about him, although his unmistakeable image does feature in Denise Burt’s fetching, rather discomfiting design for this Cantaloupe artefact. (Burt is best-known for her eye-catching artwork for the Dacapo label). Bernhard’s reputation has burgeoned since his suicide in 1989; his austere, confrontational style (in works which often feature a deeply rooted antagonism towards his Austrian homeland) is actually less than conspicuous in Der Untergeher. It is effectively a monologue delivered by an unnamed narrator who conveys a completely fictionalised account of his days as a piano student, reminiscing about his attendance at a masterclass in Salzburg given by Vladimir Horowitz (another invention) in 1952 along with his best friend and co-student Wertheimer and this chap called Glenn Gould. Naturally, they quickly work out that the Canadian is a genius who renders their humble efforts completely worthless. While It clearly doesn’t end well for Wertheimer Bernhard hawks the idea that the conclusion for Gould was not so great either. It’s a really interesting exegesis on the point or otherwise of continuing a pursuit when one is in the presence of a rival who possesses unmatchable mastery. Ultimately both novel and opera seem to revolve around how we recreate our own narratives, finding meanings and justifications in our own existence even when we are completely awed by the odd fellow traveller.
Lang’s expert adaptation requires an hour of one’s time. Musically the hero is the remarkable baritone Rod Gilfry in the demanding role of narrator; he is in action (or inaction) and acting, alone, with the most discreet of accompaniment for the entire duration. Live performances of The Loser have been well received; the tuxedo-clad narrator declaims to the audience from an elevated position shrouded in darkness during the live show, a murk that apparently lifts toward the end when the pianist, whose ghostly, ominous, fragile part is here delivered with tactful delicacy by Conrad Tao appears in the background.
Beforehand Gilfry projects Bernhard’s necessarily redacted text (in Jack Dawson’s translation). One cannot escape the feeling that the narrator is to all intents and purposes Bernhard, an enigmatic figure who suffered appallingly with a lung condition which reportedly precipitated his untimely demise. His text is simultaneously rich and spare. There is repetition but very little pause. The vocal line veers easily between recitative and lyricism, between objective indifference and a kind of impassioned resignation. The wryness of the text and the absurd events described keep one listening. Gilfry is a mesmerising presence throughout. Given the obvious dramatic limitations of Bernhard’s concept, and the stark, often beautiful instrumental writing (the ensemble consists of viola, cello and bass with delicate percussion – the piano is a separate entity and appears only latterly; the instrument could arguably be considered the other protagonist in the drama, arguably representing the spirit of Gould) Lang’s ability to draw the listener in with his assured, profoundly musical writing for a single baritone voice is impressive indeed.
Whilst The Loser is easy to admire and even enjoy, a problem for me is that it’s less easy to love. Can I envisage a time when I’m likely to pull it off the shelves to play again?. Time will tell. On the other hand, I certainly don’t think it’s one of those single act affairs one really has to see, although imaginative directors will certainly be able to make something of the stasis at its heart; something confirmed by the excellent reviews of US productions to date. The listener can certainly ‘get’ the work without seeing it – Gilfry’s visionary performance ensures that. In musical terms Lang reinforces his reputation as an elegant provocateur, and those taken with his work need not hesitate. I certainly recommend that those intrigued by the directions in which opera may be headed, not least during a period of enforced isolation, give The Loser a whirl. Or indeed anyone consumed by the legend of Gould. Cantaloupe’s sonics are in the best tradition of the label and communicate a powerful intimacy here.