Sunday, April 22, 2007

The End of the Affair

4th time the charm?? Some think so, I am less convinced.

Jake Heggie’s opera “The End of the Affair” received its Kansas City Premiere in its 4th version last night. I am sorry but I do not think Graham Greene’s novel is adequate material for an opera. Yes, I know great operas have been created around flimsy stories and improbable tales. However, this one is almost too moralistic, with complex characters and subtle psychological motives to work. But, from what I read of past reviews it is a definite improvement, tighter and more direct.

The first version for Houston was substantially thrown out, the composer and librettist shifting the focus from Sarah telling the story to Graham’s approach of having Maurice as the narrator. Houston reviews called it a “..banal morality play”. Heggie himself realized the audiences didn’t get it.

Revisions came for performances in Madison and Seattle. Seattle’s performance seemed to be the most successful. However, it seemed the main focus in the Seattle performances was the shapely buns of the young baritone who sung Maurice. He drops his boxers and gets into bed naked with Sarah in the pivotal scene when they consummate and also end their affair. Kansas City’s performance kept the boxers on (how silly) as the General Manager and the Music Director thought audiences here would not accept that. Bull-hockey, as Col. Potter from MASH used to say. More likely the main sponsors and influential patrons had some reservations. Audiences here are generally more mature and accepting than that.

But it was seeing Seattle’s production that influenced The Lyric’s General Manager to book the opera here and inspired Heggie (who was at last night's performance) to create a 4th version. In a talk to a small group of patrons before the show, Heggie was most enthusiastic and devoted to his “baby” and appreciative of the opportunity. The opera is to be recorded here as well, but not sure if it is to be a live recording or in studio.

The sets are great, the singing is superb. Emily Pulley as Sarah Miles negotiated the long arching phrases with aplomb and drama. Keith Phares as Maurice (sans butt shot) was in great voice and the most fluid actor of the cast. The supporting cast was uniformly excellent in their supporting roles.

All other reviews tended to mention that the music was taught and accessible. The Lyric GM even waxed enthusiastically that “there are duets and arias… and melody, lots of melody.” But to me, the music needs a bit of color and descriptive drama and less emphasis on long lines. The introduction of some period 40’s music now and then lightened things up a bit and the orchestra’s heaving and accelerating tension accompanying the love scene was as appropriate as that in Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth”. Maybe the problem is that Heggie was too inspired by the film versions, as the music just has a detached, cinematographic quality that just seems to get in the way.

Someone I talked to compared this opera to Britten’s “Turn of the Screw”, a similar dark, psychological opera (and an uncelebrated masterpiece in my humble opinion). It may have taken a genius like Britten to make sense of the story in “End of the Affair”.

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