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A Frank Lloyd Wright opera in Buffalo

Kleinhans Music Hall
11/04/2006 -  5 Nov 2006
Daron Hagen: Shining Brow

Robert Orth (Frank Lloyd Wright), Brenda Harris (Mamah Cheney), Matthew Curran (Edwin Cheney), Robert Frankenberry (Louis Sullivan), Elaine Valby (Catherine Wright), Gilda Lyons (The Maid,/Townswoman #3), Elem Eley (Julian Carlton/Waiter/Reporter #3/Workman #4), James Demler (Workman #1/Guest/Photographer/Last Draftsman), Jennifer Lynn Reckamp (Wife/Townswoman #1), Tony Barton (Draftsman/Workman #2/Reporter #2), Deborah Fleischer (Townswoman #2/Wife), Eric Fleischer (Reporter #1/Workman #3/Workman #5)
Daron Hagen (Stage Direction), Robert Hirsch (Visual Images)
JoAnn Falletta (Conductor), L. Brett Scott (Chorus Master)
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus

The architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was a tireless self-promoter - even a self-mythologizer. Almost fifty years after his death he is an American cult figure. Millions are spent on restoring his buildings and projects based on his designs are still being constructed. Buffalo has a wealth of distinguished architecture, and Wright’s local buildings were the focus of a November weekend conference. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s contribution consisted of two semi-staged performances of Daron Hagen’s Shining Brow, an opera premiered in 1993 in Madison, Wisconsin, the home state of both Wright and the composer. It was the first of four (so far) collaborations between Hagen and the noted Irish poet Paul Muldoon. The Buffalo production is the fifth this work has received.

The title is the English translation of the Welsh “Taliesen”, a term of honour given to a medieval bard, and the name given by Wright to the home and utopian working community he established on a Wisconsin hillside. It recounts episodes in Wright’s life between 1903 and 1914, a turbulent time for him both personally and professionally. A married couple, Edwin and Mamah (pronounced may-maw) Cheney, commission a house from him, and Wright and Mrs Cheney fall in love. His wife, Catherine, with whom he has six children, refuses to divorce him. A scandal ensues and this is professionally damaging. Wright and Mamah Cheney go to Europe for two years, where he manages to get a portfolio of his designs published, and this helps establish his international reputation. After returning to the US, Mamah settles with Wright at his new Taliesen, and one day while he is absent an employee goes berserk, setting the place on fire and murdering Mamah, her children and four other people. All the while his former mentor, Louis Sullivan, ruminates bitterly about Wright’s severing ties with him.

Following usual semi-staging procedures, the principals were arrayed in front of the orchestra, making entrances and exits according to the dictates of the plot. Visual interest was enhanced by a series of 25 visual images projected onto a large screen stage rear, on which the surtitles also appeared. Some images were impressionistic, others more documentary in style - for example a photo of Wright and his young family. The large screen had one drawback, however, in that it prevented the chorus from being seated on risers behind the orchestra. Kleinhans Music Hall - which also has a distinguished provenance, having been designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen - is strictly a concert hall and thus has no pit. Balances would have been better if the orchestra had been in a pit and the chorus moved forward. As it happened, the chorus - except when singing a capella - was distant and mushy. The hall has a crisp non-reverberant acoustic which assisted in the soloists’s words being heard - and of course they deserve credit for their clear enunciation. The surtitles were really only needed for the chorus.

Hagen’s music can be described as expressive, lyrical, and well-crafted, cleverly using an eclectic array of instrumental effects. Does this approach have a name? - expressive pragmatism perhaps? He certainly makes use of the full symphony orchestra, but never forces the singers to bellow over a tutti. This “style” (if such it can be called) is one I have detected in other recent works from various countries - Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Denmark), Turnage’s The Silver Tassie (UK), Moya Henderson’s Lindy, (Australia), Randolph Peters’s The Golden Ass (Canada). The work contains two colourful orchestral interludes that could constitute a stand-alone concert piece (and an easy introduction to Hagen’s music), much like Britten’s interludes from Peter Grimes.

Twice in the work Hagen borrows music from other composers. A scene for four construction workers is a direct take-off from the opening scene of Bernstein’s On the Town - a tribute to Bernstein who was a mentor and the work’s dedicatee. This is an amusing reference and appropriate to the dramatic moment. More problematic (in that it enters the dreaded realm of pastiche) is a borrowing from Der Rosenkavalier. Wright and Mamah had seen the new Strauss opera in Dresden and, when he later gives her a rose, a reference to the work is not inappropriate. Brenda Harris sings (very nicely indeed) Sophie’s rapturous response, but this has the effect of letting another composer make a big statement and it momentarily reduces the integrity of the work.

The singers were all very strong and skillfully put their characters across. (One advantage of semi-staging is that they all get to sing from the very front of the stage.) The libretto’s virtue is that it establishes firm characters, but its defect - and the opera’s Achilles heel - is its non-stop ultra-poetic metaphors. Did Frank Lloyd Wright ever describe himself as “a hump-backed whale with a mouth full of krill”? He might have done so in one of his many self-dramatizing moments - but this, and many similar phrases, tumble out of the singers’ mouths with alarming frequency. The last 20 minutes or so (after the announcement of the mass murder) meander repetitiously - both librettist and composer apparently can’t decide when to quit.

This opera deals with many standard “operatic” themes - a love triangle, a creative artist’s need to ignore if not violate convention, an illicit union that seems to get its retribution in a disaster. The power of Hagen’s music overcomes frequent indulgences in the words and manages to transcend what otherwise would be the material of a local tabloid scandal.

Michael Johnson



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