New opera: Wagstaff, Heggie, Wainwright, Getty, De Raaf

First published in Gramophone, February 2016

Julian Wagstaff: Breathe Freely
Jake Heggie: The Radio Hour
Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna
Gordon Getty: The Little Match Girl
Robin de Raaff: Waiting for Miss Monroe

Opera is in vogue; everyone is at it. Rock operas, folk operas, hip-hoperas, operas on the history of university chemistry departments and operas on the history of radical improvised music collectives. No subject is too racy or too dry, no venue too tiny or industrial, no fusion of musical styles too weird. “Opera is here to enoble us,” said Baron Von Swieten in the Peter Shaffer film Amadeus, but not now, it isn’t. Now it’s here to do all sorts of things, and the explosion of the form — democratising ownership and access, injecting fresh aesthetic blood from outside the classical sphere — is, by-and-large, a tremendously healthy thing.

But this clutch of underwhelming recent recordings also shows how often new opera looses its way and misses the point (the point being, as I understand it, that music, words and theatre should together make an emotional impact more profound than any one element can make alone). Of these five pieces, all premiered in the past decade, only Robin de Raaff’s Waiting for Miss Monroe comes close to offering much psychological depth or intrigue, or much musical invention. Among the others there is a great deal of drifting in the shallows of post-modern pastiche and grasping at parody and grand gesture to avoid the tougher task of conveying genuine passion.

Time was that the shift away from tonality meant opera narratives could be audaciously non-linear and non-literal: I’m thinking Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus or Wolfgang Rihm’s Séraphin. But the five dramas under review here are strikingly obvious in their storytelling, as though the pervasive sense of duty to make opera accessible depends on hitting an audience in the face with unmissable musical and dramatic signifiers. And is it noteworthy that all five pieces revolve around a brave and lonely woman protagonist? Clearly the allure of the female voice, its power and its vulnerability, still plays the muse for many a male composer.

Vocal standards are impressive, technically speaking, but often haven’t caught up with today’s norm of up-close reality stagings. Opera doesn’t have to be loud, not when there’s a small ensemble and the audience is right there, but singers are still taught to to use a default mode of full-throttle for the big stage. Financial and stylistic incentives for lithe, small-scale music theatre should mean an opportunity to draw listeners into an intimate and sensitive sound world; often that’s an opportunity missed.

Intimate and sensitive Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna is not. Premiered at the 2009 Manchester International Festival, critics avoided calling it an outright vanity project but the thick, derivative music — a checklist of operatic clichés from Verdi onwards — drew much gleeful sucking of teeth. The story tells a day in the life of a once-great singer who dreams of returning to the stage. Janis Kelly is impressively dignified as the diva, Richard Morrison is her domineering butler, Antonio Figueroa is a journalist-heartthrob and Kathryn Guthrie is the maid. Jacye Ogren conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, all surging strings and cooing winds. Wainwright clearly loves opera and integrates operatic elements into his lavishly orchestrated and structurally complex pop songs (Elton John has called him “the greatest songwriter on the planet”). The extravagance fits his persona and he duly arrived at the opening night of Prima Donna wearing a top hat and wielding a silver-topped cane. Musically, too, you get the sense he’s wearing fancy dress.

Breathe Freely is a chamber opera for three singers and three instruments with music and libretto by Scottish composer Julian Wagstaff. Its subject is the chemistry department of the University of Edinburgh during the Second World War — the department commissioned the piece — with a backdrop of Scotland’s role supporting the Polish resistance and the ethics of bio-chemical wartime research. In some ways I admire the clarity of the piece: Wagstaff keeps things simple, keeps the story straight and writes tonal, tuneful, anodyne set pieces with jaunty backing from the piano trio. Laura Margaret Smith is a spirited young mezzo with a full, fearless voice and the ability to inject big character into prosaic lines. She’s a name to watch.

The Radio Hour by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer is a ‘choral opera’ — the chorus sings all the characters, either in unison or in busy polyphony. The central figure is an unhappy middle-aged woman called Nora, played by a silent actress, and the voices represent her inner dialogues and the furniture in her home (an idea pinched from Ravel). Lines unfurl in weighty stream-of-consciousness: “put down your stupid, stupid, stupid phone”, “that’s a really weird video”, “I’m scared”. Heggie studiously mimics swing, rap and radio jingles; the music is pacy and glossy. To his credit he doesn’t fall into the usual contemporary-opera trap of aimless arioso vocal writing, and his voices and instruments tug and tussle more effectively than those of, say, Breathe Freely. Is The Radio Hour an opera? If anything the form is more Greek tragedy or passion, in the vein of Bach’s fickle, chattering crowds. John Alexander conducts members of the Pacific Symphony and the John Alexander Singers from Southern California. The performance is upbeat, chipper and far more broadway than bel canto.

Brooding, febrile atmosphere hits you like a sledgehammer in The Little Match Girl by billionaire composer/philanthropist Gordon Getty. The libretto sets Hans Christian Andersen’s text near word-for-word, which makes for a lot of words. It’s another collective effort in which the story is told by the chorus; whether strictly opera or not, the music is awfully grandiose for a tale of such devastating loneliness. Asher Fisch conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Choir and the Munich Radio Orchestra in a performance that accordingly doesn’t hold back.

Robin De Raaff’s Waiting for Miss Monroe is worth hearing. Based on Marilyn Monroe’s final months and the candid diary tapes she recorded (tantalisingly never released), Janine Brogt’s libretto is brash, gritty and stark against Raaff’s fizzy, frenetic, acrid score. There are major vocal challenges for soprano Laura Aitkin and she rises to them impressively, seductively, flexibly. The rest of the cast is also good: Dale Duesing as the studio boss Fox, Tom Randle as Joe DiMaggio, Maria Kowan as the photographer Eve, John Tessier and Daniel Belcher as the Kennedy brothers. But here’s the problem that keeps cropping up: Raaff’s most interesting music happens in the pit. That’s where he is most inventive and where he most lets rip. (Steven Sloane conducts an agile and gutsy-sounding Netherlands Chamber Orchestra). How to write compelling and convincing dialogue for voices? With all the freedoms of contemporary opera, the biggest hurdles remain the most fundamental.