Notes and Editorial Reviews
Waiting for the Barbarians
Dennis Russell Davies, cond; Richard Salter (
); Eugene Perry (
); Michael Tews (
); Elvira Soukop (
); Kelly God (
); Marisca Mulder (
); Erfurt PO & Op Ch
ORANGE MOUNTAIN 39 (2 CDs: 133:29
Text and Translation) Live: Erfurt 2005
Like it or not, I decided to try and learn this new opera, the way I know
I missed it in the theater, and I could not get hold of the score, so I heard these CDs a large number of times, in different contexts, from heads-down hi-fi to jogging in the park. I often speak up for Glass, but I don’t like all he writes equally, and he’s grown prolific. I figured that for your sake, I should test
to destruction, before suggesting you should part with your dollars. For some, this 2005 work mirrors aspects of the current War on Terror (reflecting either central social and moral issues, or liberal guilt), so I also hoped my over-exposure might help breed objectivity. This is mainly a review of the CDs, not the social issues.
The libretto (included, along with notes and stills from the first production) is excellent and singable: it was written by playwright Christopher Hampton, and it’s based on a 1980 novel by J. M. Coetzee. The story’s simple, and takes place in a nameless, timeless border town close to the desert, somewhere east. The town is visited by interrogators, and troops. They begin to torture, interrogate, and kill nomadic “barbarian” prisoners, and thus foment a desert war. They leave, after an unsuccessful military campaign, promising to return the following year to finish the job. The town’s chief official, a magistrate, at first cooperates, then grows close to one of the tortured girls, and returns her to her people. He is tortured, humiliated, and imprisoned in turn, but survives.
Mandel, one of the tormentors, sings the memorable operatic line “Shut your mouth, you fucking lunatic,” but unlike colleague Lynn René Bayley, in judging Turnage’s scatological opera
I don’t think expletives need turning on the opera itself (and that’s the only one in the libretto). The style is Glass, mostly at a moderate speed, and in minor or Eastern modes, close in its intimate moments to
Beauty and the Beast
, and referencing briefly the
The atmospheric choral moments recall the big works of Villa-Lobos, and there’s the odd shred of Shostakovich, Khachaturian, and Stravinsky. There are some vigorous orchestral interludes, and some quieter ones, which will presumably make an effective suite, though a couple of them are too long. This story is dark meat, with some violent set pieces, but the music makes its own measured response to the action. The scales and intervals Glass chooses are worked all through into a distinctive harmonic loop: there’s some good writing for winds, and for the orchestra’s nether regions. The base texture is not chattering sequenced arpeggios, but overlapping melody, and slow, portentous bass figuration.
Act I is mainly lyrical, with extended scenes between the Magistrate and his three women, and a journey through the desert with the Barbarian Girl. Violence is reported, not shown. Act II is dramatic, with most of the violence portrayed, within theatrical limits. The Magistrate is onstage for the whole opera, and sings through most scenes. This is a towering achievement for Richard Salter—and for the whole cast. The performance was caught live (no date given, but the German premiere was September 10, 2005), and it’s powerful and moving, in close, punchy sound. The mind imagines the horrors the ear suggests, but it’s the quieter exchanges and the spooky ending that stay with you. The recording is like an extended, sometimes distinctly lively meditation in the Magistrate’s mind. You don’t see what’s happening during the “Dreamscape” interludes via CDs, and I don’t think that weakens the work’s effect. The dramatic arc stands up pretty well as a two-hour audio experience, and the story’s details matter very little in that context. It’s an allegory, like many operas before it, and the central character is Everyman. Colonel Joll would have bumped off anyone else very quickly in act I. But
could still use more than a few small cuts.
Glass has made some of music’s basic materials into his own fingerprints: oscillating notes, scales, harmonic shifts, repetition. This is a remarkable achievement, which he’s developed to accommodate conventional dramatic requirements without relying on the “straight” Classical/post-Romantic compositional techniques everyone else uses. As I’ve said before, I think we should praise his individuality rather than damning him for being repetitive. The spooky ending here is based on a familiar, slowed-down boogie pattern, like a ghost of Glass in a Glass opera. But when this work communicates so directly, and when the vocal lines are gracefully composed, I can’t help but recommend it. I expect the creators would like it to make the world a better place, and they would not be the first artists to hope, in that way. But with the opera audience, they are probably preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, people also watch productions
of the violence as much as to be disgusted by its implications, and a little study could also be made of the interesting treatment of women here, and in other operas. A mass-market movie of
might help; so would more productions.
Many solitary listenings have left one overall criticism, which is that too much is at a slightly ponderous walking pace. But that’s the kind of opera it is. This isn’t the frenzied imaginative world of
Einstein on the Beach
; it’s a tale of us all “traveling down a road/Which may lead nowhere” as the Magistrate sings at the end. If you collect modern opera recordings,
deserves a place on your shelf as probably the composer’s best straight orchestral score yet for the operatic stage, well realized in this vivid recording of the premiere production.
FANFARE: Paul Ingram
Works on This Recording
Waiting for the Barbarians by Philip Glass
Marisca Mulder (Soprano),
Manuel Meyer (Bass),
Grit Redlich (Soprano),
Michael Tews (Bass),
Elvira Soukop (Mezzo Soprano),
Andreas Mitschke (Bass),
Kelly God (Soprano),
Peter Umstadt (Tenor),
Eugene Perry (Baritone),
Richard Salter (Baritone),
Mate Sólyom-Nagy (Bass)
Dennis Russell Davies
Erfurt Philharmonic Orchestra,
Erfurt Opera Chorus
Written: United States
Date of Recording: Live 2005
Length: 128 Minutes 48 Secs.
Notes: Composition written: United States (1991 - 2005).
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