The detritus of the past keeps tripping up the present, and the subjects of new operas are no exception. “Modern Painters” uses cultural history to illuminate the striking mismatch of public and private lives.
John Ruskin insistently told Victorian England what it should and should not do. He dictated what art should be admired (Turner) and abominated (Whistler), and preached support for the working man. He had no lack of opinions, and offered them up ceaselessly.
But the rigorous plane of Ruskin’s public life set a standard that his disastrous private life could not match. The child of an obsessive mother, Ruskin was sexually frigid. He took a young wife in a marriage that remained unconsummated. When his wife left him for Ruskin’s best friend, John Everett Millais, Ruskin set his sights on 13-year-old Rose La Touche, whom he saw as pre-Raphaelite womanly perfection. Before the marriage could takeplace, she died. Ruskin’s life ended in madness.
This gold mine of conflict has turned up as opera. The Santa Fe Opera premiered it July 29 as the first of three newly commissioned operas.
Composer David Lang, founder of the Bang on a Can Festival at Lincoln Center, read Ruskin’s “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” in college. When he and librettist Manuela Hoelterhoff came together to make an opera, he recalled the work vividly. Hoelterhoff made her opera in seven schematized scenes, each dwelling on one of these Ruskin themes.
Hoelterhoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and former music critic of the Wall Street Journal, finds dramatic substance in her material. She should be in line for another award with this cogently conceived, imaginative and historically correct libretto, her first opera book.
A clangorous yet ultimately expansive lyric score by Lang in his first opera shows the limitations of minimalism in expressing emotion. He grows with the demands of intimate scenes, stretching his style admirably. The music is like a postmodern building, embracing a Georgian facade, a Corinthian pillar and a House of Seven Gables. Somehow these disparate elements work together. As befits his Bang on a Can association, the first sounds tobe heard are heavy hammers against stone, as workmen demolish a treasured relic of a building while Ruskin hails the spiritual energy of great buildings.
In a scene of comic interplay, as Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray is celebrated, the opera finds a personal tone that establishes the characters’ relationships.
Designer Alison Chitty’s concept for the physical production provides a challenge for the stage director and also for the audience. Her set of unpainted , blond wood bleachers hardly suggests classic architecture. Sections of the bleachers can be moved around for different configurations.
Similar design elements were used to great effect in “Les Miserables,” but in that production the elements were dark in hue and designed to convey the oppression of the play’s subject matter. There isno suggestion of a brooding Victorian atmosphere while these elements are on stage.
Francesca Zambello conceives big scenes and small ones in equally fastidious and expressive style. She is wonderfully adept in defining Ruskin and his parents and Effie and her parents in a comic wedding dinner scene in which Mrs. Ruskin sings her recipe for stewed trout. And there is commanding drama in her staging of funeral rites for J.M.W. Turner. The Victorian mourners in heavy dress carry umbrellas as a wet fog swirls about the procession. Lang’s superb, unaccompanied choral music strikes the right melancholy tone.
But there is little to say about a bizarre “gondola ballet,” in which dancers equipped with the prows of gondolas hobble about the stage on high platform shoes. Dancing? Hardly.
The cast is huge, including 15 solo singers and an ensemble of 40 plus eight dancers. There was no indecision or hesitation in any of these players.
As Ruskin, Francois Le Roux comes vibrantly to grips with the man’s conflicts. His light baritone brings clarity to the words, but is powerfully expressive in the culminating episodes.
Ann Panagulias made Gray both beautiful and pathetic, and in her final scene registers vengeance movingly.
English painter John Everett Millais must be noble, sympathetic and candid in his relation with Ruskin. Mark Thomsen faces these demands well, using his strong tenor admirably.
Two strong mothers are offered in impressive portrayals. Sheila Nadler is an ominous figure as Mrs. Ruskin, while Judith Christin delights in her comic responses to the Ruskin family.
Barry Busse is a belligerent foreman; Margaret Mack has the small role of Mrs. La Touche.
The chorus appears as workmen, the poor, tourists in Venice, artists and mourners. In superb choral singing and always fully in character, the ensemble earns admiration.
George Manahan conducts a firmly prepared performance of a highly complicated score with an orchestra unfailingly alert to the challenges of Lang’s music.