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Anthony Davis: Tania / Steiger, Brooks, Aaronson-Davis

Release Date: 10/09/2001 
Label:  Koch International Classics Catalog #: 7467   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Anthony Davis
Performer:  Thomas YoungTanabe OrrenJulie Randall-OsbornDavid Lee Brewer,   ... 
Conductor:  Rand Steiger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Episteme
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 36 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

The Patricia Hearst kidnapping in 1974 and the horrific events that followed utterly mesmerized the country while they were happening. Hearst's capture, trial, imprisonment, and subsequent pardon by Jimmy Carter plunged the country anew into the debate over what responsibility a person who has been psychologically or physically tortured has for his or her actions. Throughout the kidnapping, the subsequent shootout and fire in LA, and the famous bank robbery, the television stations in L.A. (and perhaps nationwide) carried the story relentlessly. I can remember watching the fire live on television in Los Angeles, and being shocked at the apparently widespread disappointment that Hearst was not among the victims. Tania is, of course, the name Read more adopted by Patricia Hearst after she joined her kidnappers in the Symbianese Liberation Anny. Her story provides the basis for Anthony Davis and Michael John LaChiusa's aggressively surreal chamber opera.

The libretto is extremely difficult to summarize quickly, since the action is not literal at all. Essentially the opera takes place in Patty's bedroom and Closetland, a place of mystery that unleashes the forces of the Anny, as it is called, onto Patty's content, safe existence. Just as Patty herself is eventually transformed from a teenage col ege student into Tania, the would-be reincarnation of one of Che Guevara's slain companions, many of the other characters have double functions in the clouded reality that in some respects mirrors Patty's confusion as events unfold. Her husband also appears as the Argentine revolutionary icon Che Guevara, her father, Fidel Castro. Her mother becomes Betty Ford, and her unnamed upper-class friend reappears in a parallel scene, with the same dialog used in both, as army-member Gabi (aka Camilla Hall—the SLA members are all called by their actual revolutionary names). Throughout the opera, from the opening where Patty and her husband are watching television while she fantasies about being a TV spokesperson for the crackers they are eating, to the end, television penneates the opera. There are several screens that at times project the characters onstage, sometimes in counterpoint to the action and at times simultaneously in several guises. At one point Patty has quite an extensive duet with her television self that presumably is done via tape in live performance.

The way real events are transformed is ingenious, although I do wonder how someone who is not familiar with the actual story would track some of the action. The actual Patricia Hearst was isolated in a closet by her kidnappers and subjected to both rape and sensory deprivation. This seems to be the source of Closetland, the source of all the disruptive elements here. The fire that claimed all but two of the SLA plus Hearst forms the climax of the opera, which engulfs Closetland as Cinque seduces Patty-Tania to join them in the flames, which she does, although she reappears hale and hearty in the epilog, not much different than she was at the beginning. The final scene repeats the opening of Patty and her husband in the bedroom watching television. Patty notices light streaming from beneath the closet door, the horror attempting to return, which she covers with a pillow. The door is hot to the touch: Presumably the fire that consumed Cinque and his companions is still burning. In real life Hearst was captured, sentenced to prison, and later pardoned. She married, and to the extent that such was possible she has apparently lived a comparatively normal, rather low-key life for the last two-plus decades.

Tania is the first music by Anthony Davis (b. 1951 ) that I have heard. He has an extensive background in jazz, and the opera is in fact scored for a largish pit band, including three strings, of 17 players. Instrumentally, it reminds one of Ellington's experiments with extended forms. While Ellington is an obvious influence on Davis, his music is his own. His extensive training in classical music is everywhere evident, but he wears his learning lightly. There is nothing in the least self-conscious about the music: The idiom flows naturally and very effectively for the opera's 90-plus minutes, and the merging of classically oriented vocalism with jazz-based instrumental writing is nothing short of brilliant. I am sure the work is amazing onstage, but even without the visuals it provides a reasonably compelling listening experience. The band is a joy to listen to from start to finish, and in the instrumental sections of the piece they really do shine like the best jazz soloists. Quite properly all the instrumental solos are credited. Davis's very strenuous vocal writing requires the very best singing actors. All of the roles require the extended ranges and volume of classically trained singers with the sort of diction and the ability to completely characterize the music that is rare in any type of singing. Thomas Young, as Dad, manages this to perfection. His easy diction and fluid tone seem exactly what is needed for this fascinating piece to come fully to life. Others that manage their difficult roles well are Philip Larson, Gay Anna Sarrferre, Jane Campbell Ellsworth, and Priti Ghandi.

Unfortunately, this does not include Cynthia Aaronson-Davis, the composer's wife, in the title role. She has a beautiful voice, even in all its registers, and she manages the tricky vocal writing well. What she doesn't do is live her words. Interestingly enough, she is more effective once she becomes Tania, where the lack of verbal conviction mirrors the famous tape of the real Patricia Hearst after her "conversion." With the exception of Avery Brook's Cinque, who, in addition to being rather blank dramatically, also appears to be amplified in a way the rest of the cast is not, the rest of the singers have fine voices that they use to little dramatic effect, often sounding extremely silly in the more street-oriented sections of the work. They were all quite possibly very effective onstage, but without the character physically before the eye more detail is required for recording.

I have not seen the finished presentation of this recording, so I cannot comment on how the errors in the draft materials I have worked from will be corrected. With the exception of the peculiar recording of Cinque the sound is fine. This is an important, fascinating piece in a frustratingly flawed recording. Recommended with reservations.

-- John Story, FANFARE [11/2001] Read less

Works on This Recording

Tania by Anthony Davis
Performer:  Thomas Young (Tenor), Tanabe Orren (Bass Baritone), Julie Randall-Osborn (Soprano),
David Lee Brewer (), Carol Plantamura (Soprano), Cynthia Aaronson-Davis (Soprano),
Philip Larson (), Gay Anna Santerre (Soprano), Jana Campbell-Ellsworth (Soprano),
Priti Gandhi (Mezzo Soprano), Avery Brooks (Baritone)
Conductor:  Rand Steiger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Episteme
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1992; USA 
Date of Recording: 04/1998 
Venue:  University of California, San Diego 
Length: 95 Minutes 40 Secs. 
Language: English 

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