America was still savoring the triumph of the first moon landing, that summer of 1969, when the terrible thing happened at Chappaquiddick and the air darkened perceptibly. Soon after, the garish glory of Woodstock confirmed the fall of the curtain, the death of national innocence that made Vietnam and Watergate seem, if not inevitable, at least horribly explicable.
Nearly a quarter-century later, Joyce Carol Oates produced her violent and harrowing short novel called Black Water, recounting the hours from the meeting of Senator
Edward Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne to her drowning death in the Chappaquiddick Inlet in Kennedy’s car, its characters renamed – she is now “Kelly Kelleher” – but not otherwise disguised, its locale moved northward from Martha’s Vineyard to an island off the Maine coast. Out of the tragedy Oates fashioned a kind of ballad, much of it as the doomed heroine’s imagined last thoughts, trapped helpless in the submerged, overturned car, with its litany – “the black water filled her lungs, and she died” – repeated with agonizing insistence like a steady, maddening drumbeat.
Now Oates and the composer John Duffy have turned Black Water into a chamber opera for relatively modest resources – 10 solo singers, piano, violin, cello – first produced a year ago at Philadelphia’s American Music Theater Festival, repeated with the same principals a few weeks ago at the Skirball Cultural Center, taped at that time by L.A. Theater Works for broadcast on KCRW-FM this Sunday, September 6, from 6 to 8 p.m., not to be missed. (Yes, I know it conflicts with Jane Eaglen’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl, but there are such things as tape recorders. It runs just under two hours.)
For her libretto Oates has uncoiled her convoluted original text to form an ongoing narrative, fleshing out characters only lightly touched upon in the novel, artfully creating the milieu – chitchat at a Fourth of July party with its tangle of mouthed political and social gobbledygook, the central pairing gradually looming as if from a great distance. Duffy, a distinguished and prolific elder musical statesman whose good deeds include heading the support organization Meet the Composer, has caught the resonance of Oates’ storyline – the vicious sarcasm as “The Senator” enchants the crowd with honeyed double talk, the not-quite-pure innocence of “Kelly”‘s “American girl-ness,” the cliche-studded idealism of her tossed-aside boyfriend. This is brilliant musical theater, in a tense, angular style Stephen Sondheim might not disown, remarkable for its resourceful identification of character even in the cleverly intertwined ensembles. That latter quality in particular makes it work as a radio opera (which I heard again last week on tape) almost as well as it did with the live cast at Skirball, unstaged but mobile. That cast – Karen Burlingame as “Kelly,” Patrick Mason as “The Senator,” David Lee Brewer as the boyfriend, with Alan Johnson’s musical direction from the piano – labored as if in the service of a small but authentic masterpiece, an opinion I will not dispute.
Acis and Galatea became, therefore, the second opera produced unstaged in Sepulveda Pass this summer. Michael Eagan’s Musica Angelica ensemble, which had presented the first of the Getty Center’s “Ancient Echoes” concert series tied to the museum’s antiquities exhibition, returned to close out the series with Handel’s giddy and wondrously charming pastoral piece, delightful in all respects, ecstatically greeted by a capacity crowd. The series has been uncommonly interesting and, aside from miscalculations inevitable in this kind of project the first time out, successful. The worst miscalculation was the inclusion of a dance program, in a space where the flat audience area and the too-low stage made the dancers invisible from the waist down to all but the front couple of rows.
Acis is famous and often staged for several wrong reasons; smalltime music societies have a ball with the silliness of lovers serenading one another with roulades of “happy, happy” and the like. Eagan’s splendid group, sparked by Jennifer Ellis’ wise and delectable Galatea, brought out strengths in the work that had escaped me in lesser performances: above all the rich, solemn beauty in the choruses, and the recent-immigrant Handel’s remarkable skill in setting the English language. It’s hard to believe that so profoundly good a production as this was put together for this one weekend at the Getty; it should be mounted on wheels and sent out to raise the level of civilization the world over.
Questions I raised last week concerning the quality of the music making at the Hollywood Bowl do not, of course, apply in the matter of visiting orchestras; one can assume that they arrive with their programs already extensively rehearsed. I liked the sense of assurance around the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s performances – five programs over six days – last week. The orchestra has only existed full time since 1992, but this was already its second stint at the Bowl. Its membership, too, looks predominantly young. Its co-founder and conductor, Ivan Fischer – whose older brother, Adam, made a so-so Philharmonic debut at the Music Center last January – has appeared here off and on since 1983.
The Budapest week began impressively, with a concert of Beethoven Threes: Third Leonora Overture, Third Piano Concerto, “Eroica” Symphony. That overture is always a knock-’em-dead item at the Bowl, with its offstage trumpeter sounding the message of salvation from high atop one of the lighting towers. Fischer and his players dispatched the entire work, in fact, with a fine mix of impulse and detail. This is music popular but not easy; midway there come page after page of steady eighth-note chug-along that in lesser hands can be made to sound like routine Philip Glass. This time there was drama, a steady buildup of tension that the trumpet calls really did resolve, and then a glorious swoosh onto the bone-jarring final dissonance. At times like this, music you think you know backward and forward comes on like a welcome stranger. The “Eroica” performance – spacious but never laggardly, filling nearly an hour even without the repeats, splendidly detailed especially in the way the wind playing came somewhat forward – produced some of the same feeling. Something about the sound of the performance, the depth and dark luster of the orchestral tone, took on an Old World eloquence different from the gleaming, tense clarity of our local orchestra, and no less cherishable.
Veteran pianist Peter Frankl accomplished something similar in the Third Concerto, in a reading broad and rhetorical, beautifully controlled, especially responsive to the slow movement’s sublime meditations. This music, Beethoven’s first truly “serious” concerto, is often beset by tinkly performances from young fingers; a run-through of the same work by Seung-Un Ha earlier this summer (at one of the Bowl’s fireworks nights) was a case in point. I can only hope that among last week’s nearly 6,000 Bowl attendees there were a few young pianists (or pianists of any age) receptive to the evening’s message.