February 1, 2005


Love, Corruption and Classical Music - A New Opera About Ulysses S. Grant Debuts in Washington (Carl Hartman, 25 January 2005, Associated Press)

Love, politics and corruption under President Ulysses S. Grant get comic treatment in an opera that premieres this week based on novels written by a descendant of two presidents.

Democracy: An American Comedy was commissioned by the Washington National Opera for its program to train young artists under the company's general director, tenor Plácido Domingo. Playwright Romulus Linney adapted the libretto from novels of Henry Adams, great-grandson and grandson of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

Henry Adams is best known as a writer on history and architecture, and for his classic autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams.

Adams's Democracy is amusing at any rate.

Home-Grown Political History on the Opera Stage: Scott Wheeler's Delightful Democracy Premieres in Washington (Tim Page, 1/30/05, Washington Post)

Any list of truly distinguished Washington novels will be short, and necessarily subject to the whim and fancy of the compiler. But there is one work that will reappear again and again in any such roster, with the inevitability of the free spot on a bingo board, and that is Democracy, by the legendary historian, aesthetician, autobiographer and all-around grouch Henry Adams. Published anonymously in 1879, Democracy is a joy — a worldly, profoundly knowing (and thus profoundly disenchanted), deliciously elitist social comedy that unfolds amid the squalor and corruption of the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Now Democracy has joined an even more select company, as one of the minuscule number of operas set in the nation's capital. The Washington National Opera, which commissioned Democracy: An American Comedy from composer Scott Wheeler and playwright Romulus Linney, presented the world premiere on Friday night at Lisner Auditorium to a house full of politicians, justices, lobbyists and plain old Washingtonians who may have had cause to reflect that the rules of engagement have not changed an awful lot in 125 years.

This is a tale of puffed-up, would-be heroes and cynical, hedonistic rogues, and Adams, Wheeler and Linney leave no doubt with whom their sympathies lie. President Grant is introduced as a former alcoholic and failed businessman ("seven years later, he's the president of the United States," a character marvels). The crooked Sen. Raitcliffe makes his reputation by promising "reform," a word he uses with the same slippery promiscuity too often accorded "freedom" in 2005. The oleaginous Rev. Hazard is given to cockeyed optimism and fluttering, meaningless platitudes about the afterlife. Raitcliffe and Hazard both make presents of their collected speeches and sermons to the women they are wooing — the wealthy New York widow Madeleine Lee and the youthful bohemian individualist Esther Dudley — and one fears for a time that these eminently capable women are actually going to succumb to the blandishments of these self-regarding, 19th-century Li'l Abners.

Robert Baker as Baron Jacobi in Scott Wheeler's 'Democracy - An American Comedy' at Washington National Opera. (photo by Karin Cooper)That they do not is in large part due to a coterie of advanced, proudly unsentimental characters, whose ghosts may still be found in the salons of Georgetown and Dupont Circle. There is the brilliant Lydia Dudley, a permanent Washingtonian who (historical chronology be hanged) cannot help but call to mind the late Alice Roosevelt Longworth, with her celebrated mixture of malice and empathy, her keen interest in the fritter of political posturing. And then there is the opera's narrator, Baron Jacobi [right], the Bulgarian minister, who watches the spectacle, sees through everybody and everything, makes his pile, loses his job and, triumphantly, heads home.

Wheeler's score is a fine one, although stronger by far in Act I than in Act II, which has rather too much of the clotted, snap-crackle-pop, percussive busyness that so often mars the work of Elliott Carter and his disciples. If I generally find Wheeler's music more often clever than funny, there remain long, inspired passages of radiance (especially the finale to Act I, which is beautifully balanced, musically and dramatically, and sends the spectator out to intermission glowing). Best of all, he writes skillfully and idiomatically for the human voice — even in the opera's most strenuously modernist moments, Wheeler never asks his singers to leap around the staff like so many mountain goats negotiating impossible terrain — and his orchestration is inevitably supple, colorful and assured. This is Wheeler's first full-length opera: I hope there will be many more.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 1, 2005 6:49 PM
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