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TFCM Five: Operas by Festival Directors Harbison, Knussen, Share Sunday Night Billing


Sunday, August 15 was opera night at the Tanglewood Music Center’s Contemporary Music Festival. Two one-act operas, the first by John Harbison and the second by Oliver Knussen, were performed in concert and conducted enthusiastically by Stefan Asbury, who has been on the TMC faculty since 1995 and is much in demand in many other venues.

Harbison adapted his Full Moon in March from the dance-play by William Butler Yeats. The plot proposes that he whose song best pleases the Queen may take her for a wife. Legend has it that the successful swain will appear during the full moon in March, the time of the opera. The role of the imperious Queen was sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Nisbett, and that of the singing Swineherd, by baritone Shea Owens. Both singers displayed strong, intense voices, and their diction was excellent. (The text also was displayed on monitors stage left and right.) The other two characters, the First and Second Attendants who basically comment on the situation, were sung by soprano Adrienne Pardee and tenor Martin Bakari, also with great intensity. Bakari admirably roamed ever so smoothly from his normal tessitura to falsetto without a break.

The instrumental ensemble also serves in a “star” role, particularly the prepared piano, played by Ryan McCullough, that provides a metallic underpinning to the whole. Once again the string players were three of the strong New Fromm Players —already much in evidence and mentioned in earlier TFCM reviews this week: violinist Katherine Bormann, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Kathryn Bates Williams, joined by flutist Marie Tachouet. The remaining players were oboist Kristina Goettler, clarinetist Amy Advocat, and percussionist Michael Roberts. This modest and expert ensemble is directed to play forte or fortissimo most of the time, with long interwoven lines supporting or competing with the voices and contributing its part to the intensity of the whole.

TMC Chamber Orchestra performs "Where the Wild Things Are" led by Stefan Asbury (Hillary Scott photo)

On the other hand, Oliver Knussen’s opera, Where the Wild Things Are, op. 20 (1979-82), is scored for a 48-piece orchestra, including five percussionists. A much longer work of 40 minutes, it is a model of inventive orchestration (as is Harbison’s piece, though on a smaller scale). Knussen’s is based on the well-known story of that title by Maurice Sendak and also makes significant use of quotations from Mussorgsky’s The Nursery and Boris Godunov and Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux. Knussen explains, “Debussy’s music for his daughter Couchou is the perfect example of how a composer can make children’s music not by ‘writing down’ to them, but by illuminating his harmonic language in particularly gentle and subtle ways. . . My intention, then, was not to dilute my own musical speech . . . but simply to respond to the subject as immediately and colorfully as I knew how.” Indeed, colorful he is in both the vocal and the instrumental writing.

The technically difficult part of the impish boy Max, with its high leaps exactly pinpointing notes at or near the top of her range, was sung by the diminutive soprano Danya Katok, dressed in red pants, and a baseball T-shirt and cap — bill down the back of her neck, of course. Her diction was superb, probably aided by the fact that she was also acting as well as singing the part. The brief role of Mama, also appropriately costumed, was deftly performed by mezzo-soprano Leslie Davis. In an alternate role she joined other variously named ogres comprising the Wild Things, sung by tenor Lawrence Jones, baritone Andrew Sauvageau, bass-baritone Adam Cannedy, and bass David Salsbery Fry.

Both of these operas in their own ways make a very strong emotional and musical impression. It was absolutely necessary, however, for the listener to follow the operas’ stage directions to understand the shapes of the wholes, and one longs to see as well as hear these pieces again.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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