Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Invective Triumphant

No music library is complete without Nicolas Slonimsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults of Composers Since Beethoven's Time. Those who may worry that the age of "Good authors who once knew better words" has passed for such writing may take comfort in the treatment of Three Decembers that Allan Ulrich provided for the Financial Times Web site:

Instead of assigning stars to this two-hour wallow in New Age bathos, one should really award the project sugar bowls and give it the maximum. Hovering in that peculiarly American no man’s land between chamber opera and Broadway tunefest, Jake Heggie’s saga of a dysfunctional family, glimpsed at 10-year intervals, lacks the inflammatory urgency of his wildly popular Dead Man Walking, and in this West Coast premiere, emerges a bland confection enlivened by passing lyrical pleasantries.

Gene Scheer’s libretto, adapted from a Terrence McNally play, peers into the lives of a famous and self-absorbed actress, her gay son whose partner is dying of Aids and her daughter who assuages her problems with alcohol. Nobody actually does anything. Instead, they muse, they accuse, they kvetch, they apologise, they trumpet their neediness, they forgive; and the “shocking” second act revelation hardly illuminates the events that precede or follow it. Call Three Decembers a shameless exercise in Grand Oprah.

Whether or not history will decide that this harsh judgment against Heggie is as misplaced as the early nineteenth-century notices about Ludwig van Beethoven in the London Harmonicon is an open question; and most of us will probably not be around when it is resolved. Still, one must wonder just what it was that could invoke such persiflage from Ulrich's word processor, even if the report was filed long after the performance was actually given in the middle of this month. Perhaps Heggie can make some lemonade from Ulrich's lemons and prepare a new work entitled "Eine Kleine Kvetchmusik" dedicated to this verbally adept critic.

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