Preposterous!  An Opera Based on Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style

United StatesUnited States  Mozart, Steven Stucky: Jeremy Denk (piano), The Knights, Robert Spano (conductor), Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 4.12.2014 (SSM)


Preposterous!  An Opera Based on Charles Rosen's The Classical Style
The Classical Style Photo Credit: Chris Lee

Mozart: Rondo in F Major, K. 494
Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
Steven Stucky/Jeremy DenkThe Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts) (NY Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)


Haydn and Bartender:  Dominic Armstrong
Beethoven and Commendatore: Ashraf Sewailam
Mozart and Donna Anna: Jennifer Zetlan
Dominant, Musicologist and Music Student: Rachel Calloway
Charles Rosen and Tristan Chord: Kim Josephson
Tonic, Don Giovanni and Participant 2: Aubrey Allicock
Subdominant, Schumann and Participant 1: Peabody Southwell
Snibblesworth: Keith Jameson



Director: Mary Birnbaum
Casting Director: Alec Treuhaft
Stage Manager: Margaret Barrett
Rehearsal Pianist: Dmitri Dover
Supertitles: Melissa Wegner

In a musical season plagued by issues such as budget cutting, pared-down productions, bankrupt symphony orchestras and labor disputes; and marked by performances of works that were unusually dark such as Der Winterreise, The St. Matthew Passion and Mahler’s 2nd, a good dose of clever silliness would be more than welcome. And it did arrive, in the form of an opera (of sorts) written by Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk. The seed of this work occurred to Denk as he recovered over a whiskey: the previous night he had dined with the esteemed musicologist and pianist Charles Rosen. Both loquacious and curmudgeonly, Rosen was known for his expansive knowledge which he used to great effect on all who dared question his facts. He was a pianist capable of dashing off Bach and Mozart or Schoenberg and Elliot Carter with equal understanding and sympathy. His major study, The Classical Style, is not for the musical dabbler. (Looking at it now, I’m amazed that I actually read it, but I was 15 years younger and brighter then). Filled with musical fragments, the book draws the reader’s attention to the very essence of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But everywhere in the book there is also a stepping back from the minutia, to broadly assess the music and its humanity as well. Here is a classic example of Rosen’s style: “The pretension of Haydn’s symphonies to a simplicity that appears to come from Nature itself is no mask but the true claim of a style whose command over the whole range of technique is so great that it can ingenuously afford to disdain the outward appearance of high art.” It may be a long and convoluted sentence, but it concludes with a truth that would be difficult to dispute.

 The first part of the concert was a finely attuned, straight-up performance by Jeremy Denk of Mozart’s Rondo K. 494 and Sonata K.457. The Rondo is slightly odd in that the returning main theme is never played exactly the same way. Traditionally, the rondo form consists of an opening section that is followed by a new section that should return to an exact repeat of the opening before going on to the next new section. Marked Allegretto, the piece was taken on the slow side, darkening its overall color. Not much was needed on the part of Denk to continue this gloomy approach in K. 457. One of only two sonatas written in the minor key, this work comes about as close to what would be Beethoven’s style as any written by Mozart. Denk, as with all the performances of his that I’ve seen, had the music in his fingers. His mastery over everything technical is so thorough that it seems his only task is to add his personal stamp to what his fingers do by themselves.

 This short recital gave the audience an early intermission as the stage was set up for The Classical Style. After a short overture by Steven Stucky in his own musical language, the opera opens on the three composers covered in Rosen’s book, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, who are in heaven whiling away their time. What the audience more or less “gets” from what follows is dependant on one’s knowledge of music. The opening “complaint” (in the literary sense as a protest against some misfortune) by Haydn is that although he was the mentor of Mozart and Beethoven, he has been largely and unfairly ignored over the centuries. Meanwhile, Mozart is writing to petition the producers of the movie Amadeus for compensation for the right to use his name; and Beethoven, sullen and depressed, sits at a table too absorbed in thought to care what is happening around him. It is with Mozart’s aria that Stucky begins to integrate other music into the score. Many of the references are to Don Giovanni, as several of its characters make cameo appearances. Bits of The Magic Flute, The Abduction from the Seraglio and Beethoven’s Ninth seamlessly waft through the score. Mozart also complains about “too many notes,” repeating these words in an aria many times. This conceit works on two levels. The first is the quote itself: the story, apocryphal or not, is that Emperor Joseph II complained to Mozart  at a rehearsal of The Abduction from the Seraglio, that there were “too many notes, my dear Mozart.” On another level, Mozart is tired of hearing this cliché (and I’ve used it here again).

 Perhaps the wittiest aria is the parody of “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” (also known as the “Catalog Aria”) from Don Giovanni. Denk replaces Leporello’s list by country of Don Giovanni’s romantic conquests with facetious numbers relating to performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: “In America alone, 403 performances of the Ninth Symphony and about the same number of interminable pre-concert lectures, 137 pretentious program notes . . . 1800 standing ovations, and 5,000 people who think Beethoven was a dog.”

 In addition to the three composers, there are three anthropomorphic concepts, Tonic, Dominant and Sub-Dominant. A basic understanding of harmony helps one understand (and laugh at) the references made to and by these characters. For example, with an oblique reference to the Wizard of Oz, the character Dominant sings an introductory arioso, “If Only I Could Resolve.” At the Bar (ahem!), Tristan Chord walks in on them and states, using the forging metaphor from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, that “out of the darkness I forged myself a chord . . . so ambiguous, so unresolvable.”  The orchestra at this point chimes in with a parody of Wagner’s “Prelude and Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde. There are many inside jokes here involving drifting seventh chords, tonal ambiguities and broken harmonic rules. (At a rehearsal, the conductor Robert Spano started laughing so hard while conducting this scene that the orchestra had to take a break until he recovered himself).

 In the role of Tristan Chord, Kim Josephson presented himself as a slightly seedy character with an eye patch and a smoker’s cough. Tristan Chord cleverly gives a frightening glimpse into the future when all rules are broken and the reign of the standard chords ends. Josephson was marvelous both as this character and the Charles Rosen character, whom he eerily resembled.

The acting and singing were delightful. Jennifer Zelman performed the trouser role of Mozart with comic bravura, and Peabody Southwell as Subdominant was appropriately sensual. Robert Spano did a fine job with the convoluted score. The audience at sold-out Zankel Hall thoroughly enjoyed the performance, as was evident by their generous applause.


Stan Metzger

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