City Opera presented a new work, Fallujah, by Tobin Stokes. In its revived form, City Opera has been presenting in a variety of venues. Fallujah was staged at the Duke on 42nd Street, “an intimate, flexible, black-box theater” (according to its self-description). It is a smart place for an opera, particularly a chamber opera, which Fallujah is.

Stokes is a Canadian, and the composer of at least one other chamber opera: Pauline, whose libretto is by Margaret Atwood, the famed Canadian novelist. The opera is about Pauline Johnson, a Canadian writer and stage performer who lived from 1861 to 1913. Fallujah, of course, is about the Iraq War, and in particular one of its worst battlegrounds: the city of Fallujah, in Anbar Province. The opera is also about the aftereffects of the war on soldiers and others. Its libretto is by an Iraqi American from Michigan, Heather Raffo.

The temptation, in writing about this opera, is to write—and write—about the Iraq War. Yet it is an opera, and none of us should babble on too long before getting to the music.

Fallujah is based on the testimony of a combat veteran, Christian Ellis, who was a U.S. Marine in Iraq. He had been a singer before going to war. One of the effects of his combat experience was that he forgot how to sing.

The Duke on 42nd Street is a smart place for an opera.

The story of the opera unfolds over seventy-two hours. Philip is in a veterans hospital. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He has flashbacks. His mother is waiting outside, desperate to see him. We learn that she adopted Philip when he was eight (if I have heard correctly). In the list of roles, she is described as “Philip’s adopted mother,” rather than just his mother. We are made to think that this makes a significant difference—that she is less than a mother. Yet the character certainly behaves in full maternal fashion.

According to our program notes, “Fallujah offers a rare, operatic glimpse into the mind of a veteran struggling with” ptsd. In a program note of his own, Christian Ellis says that “Fallujah is the first opera composed about the Iraq War and ptsd.” There have been other pieces of music about the war. Maybe I should have “about” in quotation marks. The late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies described his String Quartet No. 3 as “an unpremeditated and spontaneous reaction to the illegal invasion of Iraq.” Yet this quartet has no words, and can be “about” whatever the listener wishes it to be.

Tobin Stokes, too, wrote a program note. “War happens when we become too dysfunctional for peace,” he says, “and art happens when we try to figure out why we’re all so dysfunctional.” The old spiritual says, “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” Maybe this composer should. Yet I feel sure his heart is in the right place. He also writes, “Over the past few years, chamber opera has become less predictable, more visceral, immediate, and more relevant.” Music circles, I have noted, are in love with the present (and therefore with themselves). The conceit is that the present is smarter and more alive than the stuffy past. Perhaps every generation has been afflicted, to some degree, by this conceit.

Before curtain at the Duke on 42nd Street, a City Opera official came out with Christian Ellis, for some talking. This was designed to “help everyone understand” the opera, said the official. He asked Ellis, “What do you hope they will take away?” In my view, that is cheating: a work of art should stand on its own, without this pre-performance steering. In any event, Ellis told us something startling: he had tried to kill himself four times. And “this opera gives you guys insight into post-traumatic stress disorder. It is very authentic.”

Fallujah has a view of the war. It is not necessarily my view, and it may not be yours. One major objection I have is this: the opera gives the impression that the Iraq War was a contest between invading, occupying Americans on one hand, and Iraqis on the other. Works of art about Vietnam make this same mistake: pitting Americans against Vietnamese (rather than Americans in alliance with some Vietnamese against other Vietnamese). In Fallujah, there is just one, fleeting mention of Saddam Hussein, or so I remember—this monster who had created a “republic of fear,” in Kanan Makiya’s apt and memorable phrase. Also, you might get the impression, watching this opera, that U.S. soldiers in Iraq were racist sexual predators.

I could complain on—but I remind myself of this: Christian Ellis is entitled to his own experience, his own testimony, his own memories. His own interpretation. Plus, he was there and I was not. And I should, finally, address the music, in what is after all an opera.

Stokes has written an intelligent and effective score. It is unafraid to be simple. Also, it is unafraid to employ silences. There is some rock and roll, some jazz. There is Middle Easternish music, associated with the Iraqi characters. The music is sad, quizzical, rough, tender. Toward the end, there is a big ensemble, making me think of the octet that closes Lee Hoiby’s Month in the Country, which itself drew from the closing quintet of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. If I am reading my (scrawled) notes correctly, the opera ends on a simple unison G, sung by mother and son.

The opera runs for an hour and twenty minutes and is unrelievedly grim. I think this is perhaps a mistake—not that levity goes with ptsd. But even Macbeth has some relief in the form of the porter scene (from which we apparently get knock-knock jokes). Is Fallujah exploitative? Well, sure, in that operas exploit their subjects. But does it cross a line, into emotional grossness? I don’t think so. I think it flirts with it without crossing it.

In the leading role of Philip was LaMarcus Miller, a bass-baritone. He sang with awareness and skill, though at times I would have liked to pull his voice forward: it tended to be contained. Delivering a superb performance was the soprano Suzan Hanson, in the role of Colleen, the mother. Her acting was not so much opera acting as acting acting. She was downright riveting. The production is in the hands of Andreas Mitisek, and it is a very good production: not trying to do too much but doing enough. In this it resembles the score, come to think of it.

I myself have no desire to see this opera a second time. But I am glad it exists, and recommend it to people who are inclined to see such an opera.

What is it about the flute and Frenchmen? The star players tend to be French, and if they are not, they are from Geneva, like Emmanuel Pahud, or from Quebec, like Robert Langevin. The latter is the principal player in the New York Philharmonic. I have enjoyed listening to him over the years. He shows the possibilities of the instrument, including its colors. Also, he has one of the great mustaches in music: a white, floppy, bushy affair. His mustache seems almost part of his instrument. That would not be the case if he were, say, a cellist.

One night with the Philharmonic, Langevin played Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in D. In the opening allegro, he was aristocratic, almost cool. I think the music could have used a touch more mirth. Also, some of the flute’s lower notes could not be heard, as with a soprano. Yet this was obviously high-class playing. And the cadenza was a particular treat. Written by Langevin himself, it is virtuosic and fitting. I bet Mozart would approve.

In the middle movement—Andante ma non troppo—Langevin exhibited lovely and pure singing. I would call it genuine bel canto. Bellini might have purred. And Langevin strikes me as a musician with unusually high standards for himself. In the closing allegro, he was an elegant dervish. There might have been a squeak or two, but that only proved that we were not listening to a studio recording. When he finished, I thought, “What a great instrument.” That is a tribute to the demonstrator of it.

Later, after intermission, a soprano appeared: Ying Fang, the newcomer from China. I first heard her last season at the Metropolitan Opera. She was the Young Shepherd in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. “I heard a sound so sweet,” says the shepherd. So did I. Ying Fang was amazing to hear. Last summer, James Levine had her sing in a Mahler Second that he conducted at the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago.

With the Philharmonic, Ying Fang sang Exsultate, jubilate, the beloved motet by Mozart. As the orchestra played the opening pages, she looked like she could hardly wait to sing—like it was the biggest privilege in the world to sing this music (which it is). Her first note was right on. This makes a difference in a listener’s ear, and in his brain. An imperfect first note can sour things from the beginning. As she continued the opening movement, Ying Fang was both clean and feeling. She always traveled to the center of the note. There was not a hint of portamento in this singing. Yet there was plenty of artistry. Sometimes the words could have been clearer, and Ying Fang did not show much of a lower register. But these problems were insignificant.

May Ying Fang be wonderful for a long time to come. I imagine she will be.

The recitative, she sang musically, not just rattling off words. In the aria “Tu virginum corona,” she was notably small-voiced, but she did not force, which was wise. She was tender and angelic in this music—but not namby-pamby. The aria had a beautiful prayerful quality. And the closing “Alleluja” was incisive and joyous—with Ying Fang relishing every moment.

She is at the beginning of her career, and may never be better. The word “prime,” remember, relates to “first.” I’m going to tell a sorry truth, and please don’t shoot the messenger: singers are often best at the beginning of their career, and are booked for thirty years regardless, based on their initial wonderfulness. May Ying Fang be wonderful for a long time to come. I imagine she will be.

This concert was an all-Mozart concert, conducted by Bernard Labadie, who, like Robert Langevin, is from Quebec. He is a well-known Baroque specialist. He began the evening with Mozart’s Symphony No. 31 in D, “Paris.” Immediately, he was authoritative. And so he remained. The Andante movement of this symphony had an interesting quality: it was conversational, smoothly so. Mozart brought a lot of happiness on this evening, as he typically does.

Fazil Say is a lover of Mozart, and one of his best friends in music. Indeed, Say has just recorded the complete piano sonatas of Mozart. With the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, he played a Mozart concerto, that in C major, K. 467. He played his part with character, panache, suavity, and glee. He brought his own cadenzas, and they were a hoot—ingenious hoots.

I often speak of pianists who “roll their own”—who write their own music, such as cadenzas, arrangements, novelties, encores. Fazil Say is more than a roller of his own: he is a bona fide composer. He has many works, of various kinds, to his credit, and that includes the piano concerto he played with the Orpheus group after intermission. (The Mozart concerto was on the first half of the program.) This is an early work, his Op. 4, his Piano Concerto No. 2, nicknamed “Silk Road.”

Say wrote the concerto in 1994, when he was in his mid-twenties. He was living in Berlin. And he was going to a museum—in particular, the ethnomusicology section of a museum. There, he listened to thousands and thousands of recordings. He was listening to folk music of Silk Road countries. And he put some of what he heard in his Piano Concerto No. 2. I might note that he nicknamed his concerto “Silk Road” before Yo-Yo Ma founded his project of the same name: a project that would become celebrated.

The concerto has four movements, or four sections. (There are no breaks in this piece.) They are called “White Dove, Black Clouds,” “Hindu Dances,” “Massacre,” and “Earth Ballad.” They relate to Tibet, India, Iraq, and Turkey. I should perhaps mention that Say himself is Turkish. I should also say that his piano, for this concerto, is a prepared piano: a piano with objects put on or between the strings, to produce different sounds. John Cage popularized this technique. Fazil Say has used it to good and musical effect. His concerto is full of interesting sounds, coming from both the piano and the orchestra. And these are not sounds for sounds’ sake. They are not exotica for exotica’s sake. They serve a musical purpose.

Say’s concerto is full of interesting sounds.

Get ready for some made-up words—because I want to say that the concerto begins glissy, trilly, and chromatic. I thought of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. There is a touch of minimalism along the way. And some brutality: refined brutality. At its silliest, the piece could be the soundtrack for a Kung Fu movie. I do not mean “silly” pejoratively. There is room for silliness in music, heaven knows (and as Mozart knew, and as Say proved, in that concerto). Say’s work ends in simplicity and quietude. It also ends on time. It ends before it can be too long. Earl Wild said, “Music ought to say what it has to say, and get off the stage.” Evidently, Say agrees.

I look forward to hearing this work again, preferably played, as with Orpheus, by the composer himself, who is a superb advocate of his own and others’ music.

The Metropolitan Opera staged an opera written in 2000, L’Amour de loin, or Love from Afar, by Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer. She has spent her career in Paris. The libretto is by Amin Maalouf, a native of Lebanon, who has also spent his career in Paris. Indeed, he is a member of the French Academy. He has collaborated with Saariaho several times.

In L’Amour de loin, Jaufré Rudel, Prince of Blaye (Aquitaine), is bored with the lovers he can see. He wants one he cannot see, one who is far away. (Incidentally, Rudel is a big name in opera, given the late conductor Julius.) A pilgrim tells him about Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. She’s the one! Jaufré becomes obsessed with her. A troubadour as well as a prince, he sings of her night and day. The pilgrim acts as their go-between. Finally, Jaufré travels to meet Clémence—and dies on doing so.

I think of another opera, Thaïs, by Massenet: one of the lovers dies just as the romance should begin.

L’Amour de loin is set in the twelfth century. Will it be updated, as so many operas are? That would be a pity. The tale needs a sense of ancient timelessness, if that is not a contradiction. So does Tristan und Isolde—which was, sadly, updated by the Met this year. (Tristan is another opera in which one of the lovers dies tragically soon.)

Saariaho’s score is lulling and dream-like. The story has a dream—an actual dream—which might be seen and heard as a dream within a dream. The music is full of soft percussion, delivering bells, chimes, shivers, tinglies . . . There is often an orchestral wash. North Africa is suggested by a kind of Orientalism, but I heard the score as basically French. It is perhaps a descendant of Pelléas et Mélisande, the Debussy opera. Once, the tenor Ben Heppner described Pelléas as “four hours of French Novocain.”

The dream-like state of L’Amour de loin is interrupted now and then with wails, groans, or other outbursts. At one point there is clapping. An homage to Steve Reich, master of clapping? The opera ends with Clémence singing over Jaufré’s lifeless body, in an angry Liebestod.

One difficulty I had: caring about the lovers, or would-be lovers, who are terribly privileged and terribly self-absorbed, making problems for themselves where none ought to exist.

In any event, the Met supplied an able cast. Jaufré was Eric Owens, the American bass-baritone. For about half the opera, his sound was wobbly, but it evened out, and he always sang with dignity. An American soprano, Susanna Phillips, was Clémence, and she emitted a pleasant ribbon of sound. She also sang with understanding and commitment. The pilgrim—known simply as the Pilgrim—is a trouser role, and it was taken by Tamara Mumford, the American mezzo. She put on little less than a clinic of singing. In the pit was another Susanna, and the composer’s fellow Finn: Susanna Mälkki, who did her part in maintaining the spell of the opera.

Truly beautiful—lovely, dream-like, enchanting—is the production. It was conceived by Robert Lepage, the Canadian director (a third Quebecker for our chronicle). Not merely beautiful on its own, the production matches the score, note by note. Both the music and the production are shimmering.

Frankly, a little L’Amour de loin goes a long way for me. I am ready for the dream to be over. But this opera is greatly loved by many people, and they have a point.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 71
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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