Contemporary Opera / HHA

Tod Machover’s Schoenberg in Hollywood, by the Boston Lyric Opera

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In the style of a film noir, Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) recounts the story of his wife Mathilde’s affair in Boston Lyric Opera’s World Premiere Schoenberg in Hollywood by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson.
In the style of a film noir, Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim) recounts the story of his wife Mathilde’s affair in Boston Lyric Opera’s World Premiere Schoenberg in Hollywood by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson.

Schoenberg in Hollywood
An Opera by Tod Machover
Music by Tod Machover
Libretto by Simon Robson
Based on a Scenario by Braham Murray
Commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera

First thing to say, more has been going on since early September than one could keep up with—early music, new music, and the great and ever-popular classical in-between.

The Boston Lyric Opera recently completed its very successful run of Tod Machover’s new opera, Schoenberg in Hollywood, libretto by Simon Robson. Returning from out of town, I was fortunate to attend the final performance, Sunday, November 18th.

All concerned have been lucky to have the (restored) Emerson Paramount Theater on Washington Street as venue for the production. The theater is attractive and not too large, with good acoustics—a good place for opera—let there be more.

What made the strong impression of this production was not so much the piece itself as the brilliant, inventive staging by Karole Armitage, set design by Simon Higlett, with a fine cast of singing actors, and frequent and apt use of projected images and film clips, all based on an “original production concept” by the late Braham Murray.

The scenario gives us the later years of great modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, who fled the Nazis in Europe and settled in America, first in the East, in Boston in fact, and then in Los Angeles, where he taught at UCLA, continued to write music, flirted with writing music for films, and died, in 1951.

The opera’s music is fairly simple, free-form and moving up and down the scale, by notes or intervals, in the vocal line and in the accompaniment, following and emphasizing the drama of the words, with the occasional big chord or burst of instrumental color, sometimes a lovely solo—cello, clarinet, piano. Company Music Director David Angus ably conducted a small ensemble, making all the right sounds, and pacing and timing things perfectly.

The cast—strong and attractive voices, all— put the words and drama across very effectively—principally baritone Omar Ebrahim as Schoenberg, often overwrought, harping on his existential crisis (“Who am I?”), wondering where to go and what to do, worrying over work on his unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, constantly reverting to his consciousness of being Jewish. Tenor Jesse Darden and soprano Sara Womble first appeared as a Boy and Girl who greet Schoenberg on his arrival in America (“You’re safe”), soon urge him to “Go West,” and then turn up as his students at UCLA. The scenes with the Boy and Girl were light and deft in stage choreography, the actors (including Ebrahim) moving about and striking poses easily, like dancers, the stage space large and airy with minimal but suggestive sets as the scenes transformed. Darden doubled as producer Irving Thalberg in a delicious scene talking film work with Schoenberg. Ms. Womble doubled as Schoenberg’s wife and later his new mistress.

n the style of a cowboy western film, Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim, r.) and his second wife Gertrud Kolisch (Sarah Womble, l.) trek across the country to their ultimate destination of Los Angeles in Boston Lyric Opera’s World Premiere Schoenberg in Hollywood by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson.
n the style of a cowboy western film, Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim, r.) and his second wife Gertrud Kolisch (Sarah Womble, l.) trek across the country to their ultimate destination of Los Angeles in Boston Lyric Opera’s World Premiere Schoenberg in Hollywood by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson.

The production was punctuated liberally with projected images—old photos; Schoenberg’s painted self-portrait, nice to contemplate as he agonizes; a beautiful color view of Monument Valley, like a frame from a John Ford film (maybe it was?), evoking the transcendent appeal of the West; episodes from Schoenberg’s earlier life and memory realized as old Hollywood slapstick or film noir in live-action film.

I left the theater feeling not so much that I had attended an opera, as, rather, a strange and marvelous sort of film, or show of light and projections, taking us into a dreamlike space, the mind and work concerns of the protagonist. I left mainly impressed with blue skies and sunlight, as an emblem for the transformative in life and in creative work.

Framed by a self-portrait painting, Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim, c.) recalls a romantic moment from his past, reenacted by Jesse Darden (l.) and Sarah Womble (r.) in Boston Lyric Opera’s World Premiere Schoenberg in Hollywood by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson.
Framed by a self-portrait painting, Arnold Schoenberg (Omar Ebrahim, c.) recalls a romantic moment from his past, reenacted by Jesse Darden (l.) and Sarah Womble (r.) in Boston Lyric Opera’s World Premiere Schoenberg in Hollywood by composer Tod Machover and librettist Simon Robson.
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Charles Warren studied literature and music formally and now teaches film history and analysis at Boston University and in the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of "T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare," and edited and contributed to the volumes "Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film" and "Jean-Luc Godard's 'Hail Mary:' Women and the Sacred in Film."

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