I bought a New York Times this morning and was annoyed to read Tommasini’s article on new operas. I couldn’t disagree more.
I thought that Doctor Atomic had not one minute of interesting vocal writing and even less of theatrical viability. Musically it was quite nice, though I might hear it differently today. I notice increasingly Adams’ minimalist tendencies, something I have no problem with. It’s the lack of a real libretto that I don’t like.
So why has Satyagraha not the same effect on me? It has a similar lack of theatrical viability and yet does not bother me at all. With Glass there is the expectation of boredom. One anticipates being numbed into submission. Adams has not created the same expectation. He began his operatic career with a highly viable theatrical vehicle--Nixon in China—with real dramatic tension and at least one real opera aria. Expectation undoubtedly plays a role. I was glad when he made a symphony of Doctor Atomic. Much more suitable.
So now Tommasini wants to attack my favorite thing about Bonesetter—the writing for female trio. He does this by pointing out how critical the trio in Rosenkavalier is to the plot. No it isn’t. It’s critical to the need for a big vocal moment. Strauss understood precisely what an opera was, how one worked dramatically, and most important of all how one worked musically. He understood the purpose of singing in the drama, where the arias went and why. The climax of Rosenkavalier involves 3 people, so all three have to sing.
I didn’t read Tam’s novel and am not sorry. I came to Bonesetter with no preconceived ideas. Do I think it’s as good as Rosenkavalier? Hell, no. Do I think anything is as good as Rosenkavalier? Hell, no. I thought the trios made the story about three characters, and that it needed that. I bought the theatrical solutions to the staging of the novel. For me it worked.
I don’t think Wallace is as good a composer as Adams. Tommasini was right in pointing out the flaw in Wallace not being able to imagine the sound for Bonesetter. Verdi didn’t sit around thinking of a sound. Wagner didn’t either—or if he did, he seems to have done it only once for his whole career. Strauss didn’t either. Mozart didn’t either. Any composer worth shit looks to their own sound for the musical materials, and they know what that sound is. The problem with most modern composers is that they have technique to burn but absolutely no characteristic sound. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of Philip Glass. He makes you crazy on occasion—though I seem to be getting over this reaction—but you always know who he is.
I think all three have to sing together in Bonesetter. It doesn’t work without it. For me it was vastly superior theatrically to Atomic, an opera about a bomb hanging in the air. Maybe the new production will help me change my mind, but for me Atomic lacked theatrical viability. At no time do any two characters actually talk to each other. The countdown that lasts through the whole last act completely did not work. I could go on and on.
Mrs Atomic asks over and over “Am I in your light?” Could he just turn around and say, “No, for god’s sake. The light is coming from the other side, as anyone can plainly see.”