Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Manchurian Candidate (Minnesota Opera)

In March 2015, the Minnesota Opera presented the world premiere of an opera by Kevin Puts (libretto by Mark Campbell) derived from Richard Condon's novel The Manchurian Candidate.  Of course, Condon's paranoid thriller has been remade as a film twice -- a famous version in 1962 directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Anthony Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra as well as a 2004 remake helmed by Jonathan Demme with Denzel Washington in the title role.  As far as I can ascertain, Puts' opera follows the scenario of the Frankenheimer movie very closely, although with some significant omissions.  (The 1959 Condon novel contained episodes to outrĂ© to be filmed:  for instance, a sex scene between the brainwashed assassin and his monstrous, politically ambitious mother; the 2004 film is typically damned with faint praise, but it contains Meryl Streep's splendidly vicious caricature of Hillary Clinton as the rapacious mother.)  Curiously, the opera version of this story, a highly complex narrative, is shorter than the films made from the novel -- the opera feels like a sort of checklist, the libretto ticking off noteworthy and memorable scenes from the 1962 film until reaching its bloody climax at the Republican National Convention.  I am not a fan of Puts' music and dissented from majority opinion with regard to the composer's previous opera, Silent Night, a show about the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front.  (Puts and Campbell won a Pulitzer Prize for that opera -- I thought it was curiously uninvolving, disjointed and that the music was uninspired.)  In The Manchurian Candidate, Puts music is, more or less, a busy movie soundtrack to the characters' declamatory atonal singing -- he uses Philip Glass-style arpeggios in suspense scenes combined with jarring dissonant chords of the sort made famous by Bernard Hermann in his Hitchcock and film noir soundtracks.  But Puts is problematically pure, austere, and aesthetically advanced -- he avoids anything like a melody or a Wagnerian leit motif preferring to illustrate the emotions of his characters in a stolidly literal way.  The atonal screeching and telegraphic-style syncopated rhythms is a curious choice for an opera set in the political milieu -- the show's score could be enlivened with patriotic numbers, citations of campaign songs, military marches, and pop music allusions.  But, alas, Puts is too pure to allow the audience anything like sonic entertainment.  An example is a party-scene in which the horrible politician,Johnny Iselin, a parody of Joe McCarthy, prances around dressed as a milk-cow, the udder on his costume displayed in place of his pudendum.  For about three bars, we get a lively conga tune as the partygoers get drunk and snake-dance around the stage -- but Puts puts the kibosh on anything like fun and the score immediately reverts to dissonant wailing.  The great opera composers of the 19th century, even Wagner in an early show like The Flying Dutchmen, installed crowd pleasing tunes in their shows -- Puccini and Verdi were always quick to add a tavern scene with a drinking song or a military march, even if extraneous to the main action, to keep the audience engaged.  Not so, Puts -- if he accidentally allows a fragment of melody to creep into his score (for instance a bar or two from "The Star-Spangled Banner"), he immediately seems to regret that indulgence as vulgar popularism and reverts to his unimaginative post-Schoenberg style.  (This is why I thought Silent Night was a failure -- the show was always teasing the audience with echoes of Christmas songs that no one was allowed to sing; a show about Christmas was devoid of anything like a Christmas carol -- this seemed perverse to me.)  The show gallops along and can't help but be effective to some degree -- the garish and violent plot is sufficiently interesting to keep everyone engaged.  But the opera completely botches the climax.  The assassin goes off-stage about ten minutes before the opera ends and we never see him again -- this is completely bizarre, a way of staging an exciting climax that prudishly strips away all of the actual suspense and seems weirdly disengaging.  The famous climax of the film involves the brainwashed sleeper assassin, apparently reprogrammed by his buddy, Lieutenant Marco, vacillating between killing the target chosen for him by his Chinese handlers (the presidential candidate) or murdering his mother and her husband, Hilary Clinton in bed with Joe McCarthy.  Since we don't see the protagonist, there's no real suspense -- the lines triggering the killing are spoken and the rifle is fired but we don't see any of the anguish in the poor brainwashed murderer's decision to kill his own mother and, then, himself.  The hero, in effect, simply goes away.  During the opera's disappointing last scene, my daughter and I repeatedly looked up into the Ordway's upper tiers, hoping to see the hero emerge somewhere above us with his sniper rifle -- why in the world wasn't something like this done?  At minimum, the Jumbotron screens hovering over the action could have shown the sniper, aiming his gun, wavering with respect to his target, and, then, pulling the trigger -- but we get nothing -- it's an invisible climax and, therefore, no climax at all.  Early in the opera, characters sing the words "He is a true American hero" to a typically jagged, resolutely anti-lyrical musical phrase.  The 1962 film ends with a famous voice-over in which the assassin, who has saved his country by shooting the conspirators, is eulogized as a true hero, at last, a man who overcame incredible torment to do a heroic deed, something for which he should, indeed, receive the Congressional Medal of Honor -- this is a moving and important speech and one that brings the film to a ringing end.  It is completely perverse that Puts wouldn't have set this speech to music and have it intoned, except, of course, he's not equal to the task.  Indeed, anyone not so puritanically austere would have devised a memorable leit motif for the lines early in the show asserting that the assassin is a "true American hero" and, then, have reprised that melody back in the last minutes of the opera.  Nothing so obvious and audience-pleasing as this for Mr. Puts and his ascetic librettist -- instead, we get a couple phrases about fear, a quasi-horror film chord with some dissonance, and the opera simply ends.  The audience was puzzled:  what happened to the hero?  And this is the end?  A dark stage and an inconclusive agreement that everyone is afraid.  Although the audience, rather reluctantly, I thought, gave the show a typical Minnesota standing ovation, I sensed some dissatisfaction -- the material is rich and could be orchestrated in a way that would be funny, grotesque, and engaging.  Think of what Shostakovich would have done with this material.  Instead, Puts won't write anything like a melody or a chorus or a theme -- the best that he can do is to write some duets that are confusing, parallel scenes proceeding simultaneously:  someone declaims that the hero "Raymond is a heartless assassin" while a person in another room simultaneously says "Raymond is a warm-hearted kindly man."  This is the first libretto composed for supratitles -- you get the sense that Puts and his librettist are designing speeches on the basis of making them intelligible on the supra-title screen over the proscenium arch.  But they don't get this right either:  at one point in the big climax, we see a supratitle saying "Jesus, I need a drink!" -- but who is saying this? what voice is the chaos of shouting speaks these words, and why are they necessarily displayed to us in the titles? 

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