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What's next for opera? Tanglewood festival shows a bright future

LENOX -- The Tanglewood Music Center's triple-bill of 20th-century operas opened with a sneeze and ended with an unanswerable question and sustained high C.

This newsworthy evening of superb music-theater opened with Paul Hindemith's ``There and Back" (1927), continued with Stravinsky's ``Mavra" (1922) , and closed with the American stage premiere of Elliott Carter's ``What's Next?" (1999). Each work paid tribute to operas past, while suggesting new directions for an old genre.

``There and Back" is a brisk, cheeky anecdote, an anti-opera. An elderly aunt sneezes and her niece Helene comes in, ready for breakfast. Her husband comes home early from work. A letter arrives; it is from Helene's lover. Her husband shoots her, then jumps out the window. A Bearded Sage appears and announces that life can proceed from the grave to the cradle, too. The story then runs backward , and the opera ends with the old aunt's opening sneeze.

The lively singing cast was led by soprano Chanel Marie Wood (Helene), tenor Anthony P. McGlaun (her husband), and Brendan Daly (The Bearded Sage). Soprano/master teacher Phyllis Curtin, 60 years after coming to Tanglewood as a student, took the role of the aunt, sneezing admirably, and commanding the stage even in silence. The performance was briskly led by Kazem Abdullah and played with swagger by members of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

Stravinsky's little opera is another anecdote. The heroine disguises her lover in drag and presents him to her mother as the new cook, Mavra. Left alone for a moment, the lover decides to shave and the mother finds him out. The music pays graceful homage to the forms and melodic contours of operas by Glinka and Tchaikovsky that Stravinsky grew up with, but in his own dodgy, triple sec neoclassical language. The cast was spirited and personable, but needed to sing out a bit more. Conductor Nicolas Fink controlled both the steady tempos and the tricky rebounding rhythms within them.

Carter's 40-minute opera is one of his masterpieces; it is sui generis , but does owe something to the quicksilver ensemble magic of Mozart's masterpieces and Verdi's ``Falstaff." None of his complex music is abstract, but his work becomes easier to follow -- and its brilliance becomes more immediately apparent -- when it is linked to words, characters, and situations.

The literate libretto by the critic and novelist Paul Griffiths presents six characters in search of an opera -- and themselves. There has been an automobile accident. The survivors, if that's what they are, find themselves in transformed state: they are who they are, and they can't change that, but they must work toward an understanding of what has happened to them, and what their relationships to each other are, or should be. Roadworkers come to investigate, but they can't see or hear the characters. An ultimate question seems to be forming -- just a single word, ``what," perhaps the beginning of ``what's next?" Are the characters dead? In limbo? About to be born? We don't know for sure. High C. Blackout. The opera's over.

Each character has his own musical language and tempo. Each operates independently (in brief arias), intersects, clashes, and sometimes harmonizes (in complex ensembles). The glistening orchestra tells the story too and contributes a meditative interlude of haunting beauty.

James Levine, in his last Tanglewood responsibility this summer, led a lucid and elegant performance from orchestra and singers. Kiera Duffy brought silvery, accurate coloratura to the part of the diva bride; sunny baritone Chad Sloan was her clownish intended. Jamie Van Eyck brought a strong mezzo to the part of the mother, a ditherer, but practical and sensitive too. Tenor Lawrence Jones was both amusing and disturbing as the phony guru Zen. Young Rebecca Danning performed the part of the little boy with aplomb. And Christin-Marie Hill was majestic in voice and appearance as Stella, an astronomer. There was a standing ovation marked by full-throated bravos when the 97-year-old composer and his librettist made their way to the front.

Douglas Fitch designed and staged all three operas with witty, almost sculptural costumes by Catherine Zuber and vivid lighting by Clifton Taylor. All three sets mediated between surrealism and cartoon art. The wrecked and distorted automobiles in ``What's Next?" were a brilliant physical manifestation of the inner lives of their passengers. Fitch's direction was inventive and informed -- some of the body language in ``What's Next?" came from the French filmmaker Jacques Tati whose ``Trafic" set Carter off in the direction of this plot.

The characters are often doing calisthenics in an effort to establish where, if anywhere, their bodies are and how they might function. Much of it looked as sculptural as the work of Robert Wilson, but ratcheted up to Roadrunner speed, and with an emotional range from farce to high tragedy.

Opera at Tanglewood has come and gone over the years, and taken many directions when it was around. This was one of the rare evenings when it landed right where it ought to be.

(Correction: Because of reporting errors, Thursday's Style & Arts profile of opera director Doug Fitch and Saturday's Living/Arts review of the Elliott Carter opera Fitch directed at Tanglewood both incorrectly named the piece. It is titled ``What Next?")

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