In Review: NEW YORK CITY
1 October 2005
by ARLO MCKINNON
Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.
NEW YORK CITY
The Lincoln Center Festival remains one of the few good reasons to stay in New York City during the summer. Year after year, it presents unusual and stimulating musical and theatrical works, always in productions of the highest caliber. A highlight of this year's festival was Shadowtime, the "thought opera" by composer Brian Ferneyhough and librettist Charles Bernstein, given its U.S. premiere in Lincoln Center's Rose Theater on July 21. A 1999 commission for the Munich Biennale, Shadowtime was first performed in Munich, in 2004, and has subsequently traveled to Paris and other important European venues.
A scion of the English musical movement known as "the new complexity," composer Ferneyhough has enjoyed a long, successful career as a composer, teacher and theorist. To describe Ferneyhough's music as extremely difficult is to understate the case egregiously: his scores are so dauntingly complex that they scare off all but the most courageous of performers. The composer himself once stated that the complexity in his music was necessary in part to prevent its performers from adding any elements of a personal interpretation to his works. In Shadowtime, his first opera, Ferneyhough had to simplify his compositional language to meet the needs and limitations of a theatrical venue - a process he says has made Shadowtime a watershed of new compositional ideas that he intends to explore in greater depth.
The opera is a meditation on the life, death and work of critic, philologist and Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), author of essays including "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Shadowtime begins with a scene depicting the final evening of Benjamin's life. Having ignored many warnings from his colleagues and friends, Benjamin, a German-born Jew who had emigrated to Paris upon the rise of Hitler, made a late, ill-starred attempt to flee the Nazis occupying his adopted city. Benjamin sneaked into Spain with a transit visa that should have allowed him safe passage to neutral Portugal, from where he intended to fly to the U.S. Having completed an arduous hike through the Pyrénées, Benjamin arrived at a border inn, only to be informed that Spain would not honor his transit visa and that he would be returned the next day to France. It is unclear whether Benjamin committed suicide that night or his already enfeebled heart gave out. Ferneyhough and Bernstein do not believe that Benjamin committed suicide.
In a July 18 symposium on the work, Ferneyhough and Bernstein both spoke of the goal of redefining the operatic/theatrical experience. Shadowtime is not - and was never intended to be - a conventional drama. That said, the opera was only partially successful in presenting a cogent dramatic alternative; the work lacks coherent structure and argumentative thrust. It did not prove to be a compelling form of theater, despite moments of genuine power and a performance of impeccable commitment, conducted by Jurjen Hempel and directed by Frédéric Fisbach. Following its fairly realistic first scene, Shadowtime uses an extended, non-linear path to evoke the spirit and thought processes of its subject, one of the early twentieth century's great intellectuals. Layer upon layer of complex texture often seemed to serve as an end in itself, almost functioning as a structural element. More often than not, the libretto and the words seemed to be at odds with each other; one frequently longed for a greater sense of synthesis between the two.
At times Bernstein's libretto lapsed into a rather sophomoric level of cleverness that was quite annoying - not really doggerel yet also not serving to advance the dramatic argument. Ferneyhough's music was generally more successful, especially in the choral numbers and in the stunning piano music for the fourth scene, Opus Contra Naturam, played by pianist Nicolas Hodges. However, in other moments the composer seemed to be at sea with his simplified language.
The opera as a whole would have benefited from a greater and more lucid differentiation of characters and dramatic intent. To a large degree, Shadowtime comes across as a dense, complex work written by and for members of an elite, cabalistic cadre of cognoscenti. The published version of the libretto reads much more clearly than it emerged onstage; its footnotes and introductory commentary illuminated many of its mysteries. If only the viewer/listener did not need to do "homework" to understand these mysteries, the work would have been more successful.
Shadowtime's particular frustrations aside, it is wonderful to experience a work in which two obviously brilliant and learned artists stretch themselves to the limit to create a new work of art. Since they were testing their powers with such intensity, it is not surprising that the resulting creation has weaknesses as well as strengths.