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An opera for the next century?

The year 1900 saw the first performance of Puccini's Tosca, which has become one of the mainstays of the operatic repertory. The drama of an opera singer caught up in the murderous politics of the Napoleonic wars in Italy, Tosca unites the essence of nineteenth-century opera, the inarticulate physical passion of the diva's voice and the tragic inevitability of a historical narrative, with an early twentieth-century musical style in a way which seems to make it the quintessence of verismo opera for all time. Is it possible that any individual work of the year 2000 could reach and retain the status of Tosca?

In contrast to the situation in 1900, there have been a fair number of millennium commissions, some of which have deliberately aimed to sum up, take a new look at or more generally celebrate opera. Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper, commissioned for Berlin and Glyndebourne, explicitly addresses the topic of the millennium, seen as the end of the first age (defined by the procession of the equinoxes) after the birth of Christ rather than a numerical accident. Its music is difficult, but it has been widely praised as a music drama of the spirit, though reviewers have frequently mentioned of the excellence and commitment of the original cast. Birtwistle is already being "rediscovered" as a major composer, not only of opera, even though he is not nearly dead. The Last Supper seems to have every chance of lasting as well as his other operas, which share profound mythical resonances and completely avoid ingratiating themselves with the audience by pressing contemporary buttons.

Most of last year's other commissions have been rather closely targeted at the audience of the commissioning house, which might affect their chances of survival as institutions and audiences change. Mark Anthony Turnage's The Silver Tassie, commissioned by the English National Opera, may well turn out to be the most resilient. A straightforward setting of a bitter play about the first world war by Sean O'Casey (with an excellently extracted libretto by Amanda Holden), it is thoroughly theatrical, stirring, with echoes of middle-period Verdi in its angry baritone anti-hero, and very moving. It has already been well received in Germany with a different cast and production.

Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, for the San Francisco Opera, reworked Helen Prejean's powerful autobiography -- about her relationship with a murderer on death row -- with theatrical savvy. Heggie's music was in the contemporary music theatre style, which lead some to suggest that the work wasn't a proper opera. But its pre-Vatican II Catholic decor, with doomed criminals, and its focus on a richly emotional, self-denying heroine are directly descended from mainstream nineteenth-century Italian opera, and the generally mainstream Italian-opera loving San Francisco audience loved it. It already has a further US season confirmed and is pencilled in for a number of European houses. It may turn out to be a work that sums up the state of opera so far for today's audiences, rather than one for the future.

John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, for the Metropolitan Opera, in contrast, was a musically adept but remarkably passion-less Great-Books opera that seemed designed mainly not to frighten the horses pulling carriages outside Lincoln Center. The Met audience liked it enough for the run to sell out, but not enough to generate any real excitement in the house, and the critics were generally underwhelmed. Gatsby is going to Chicago, but probably has limited appeal in Europe. Very few American "great-books" operas seem likely to emulate the staying power of their models, Britten's Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice.

An interesting European commission was Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, for the Salzburg Festival and Le Châtelet. Generally well received, its exploration of intense but unfulfilled romantic love shares some of Birtwistle's mythical purity, in a more far poetical and less rambunctious style. It is scheduled for production in 2001 in Paris, and in 2002 in Sante Fe, which co-produced the première. Adriana Hölszky's Guiseppe e Sylvia (Verdi and Sylvia Plath meet in a bar in the afterlife) and Louis Andriessen's Writing to Vermeer (the women in Vermeer's life write to him while he is away) were both heavily conceptual experiments that didn't quite work for most reviewers. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will sink without trace, but somehow their dependence on known cultural creators for their meaning suggests a self-absorption that might make them less generally accessible.

Not strictly an opera, John Adams' El Niño is also a three-way commission (Le Châtelet, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Barbican in London) and also included Dawn Upshaw and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in its première cast. Like The Last Supper, it is a millennial project in the strict sense, but where Birtwistle is a rough man, Adams is a smooth man. El Niño uses the forms of oratorio and popular religious poetry to evoke the world-changing wonder of the birth of a child, any child, as well as the Christ-child. Far more than most generalizations about gender or class, that is a truly universal event. Adams' oratorio has a fighting chance of joining Messiah, if not Tosca in the standard repertoire in the foreseeable future.

Of course, the survival and success of any particular work depends as much on the institutions and audience that support opera, and on the broader cultural context, as on the work itself. What the next century has is store in this area is another interesting question.

H.E. Elsom



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