Freedom’s just another word in premiere of Lang’s trite “prisoner of the state”

Fri Jun 07, 2019 at 12:24 pm
The New York Philharmonic presented the world premiere of David Lang's "prisoner of the state" Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

The New York Philharmonic presented the world premiere of David Lang’s “prisoner of the state” Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Beethoven has threaded through the New York Philharmonic’s season-ending series, Music of Conscience. That’s as it should be for the project’s theme of “unforgettable music created in response to historical events, political unrest, and societal turmoil.” 

It’s also a valuable reminder of what the canonization of Beethoven has obscured—that he was spied on by the Hapsburg political police and was a political subversive for rejecting the authority of hereditary monarchs and embracing the value of the individual soul and freedom of conscience.

The series of three programs began two weeks ago, with the composer’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” and opened its final program Thursday night with a piece inspired by Beethoven’s sole opera: the world premiere of David Lang’s prisoner of the state.

A co-commission by the Philharmonic, the Barbican, de Doelen in Rotterdam, the l’Auditori in Barcelona, the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, and the Bruge Concertgebouw, prisoner of the state is a modern re-writing of not only Fidelio but the original version Leonore. Lang says he searched both librettos for “moments that I thought were odd or interesting or which gave me opportunities to go a little deeper into environment or character or narrative.” To those sources (the title came from a line in Leonore), Lang ambitiously added bits of writing from and references to Machiavelli, Jeremy Bentham, Hannah Arendt, and Rousseau.

Even with its flaws, Fidelio has tremendous power and contains some of the pinnacles of the operatic literature; the overtures, Florestan’s aria, the prisoners’ chorus “O welche lust,” and the incredible quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar.” Even coming within sight of the effect of Fidelio would be a career-defining achievement.

Unfortunately, prisoner of the state comes nowhere close to catching a glimpse of Beethoven. On its own terms, Lang’s new opera is a success in that it sets out to do something and does it. That achievement though is so minor and so hollow, so transient and ordinary—like being the tallest kid in nursery school—that the effect was not one of being stirred but of becoming depressed.

The opera is a series of set pieces that follow the plot of Fidelio, with soprano Julie Mathevet (in her Philharmonic debut, like most of the cast) as the wife disguised as The Assistant, set on rescuing her husband, The Prisoner (baritone Jarrett Ott), before he is murdered by The Governor (tenor Alan Oke). Yet the opera has no dramatic form or purpose other than to lay out trite descriptions of and responses to some of the most obvious ills of society.

Directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, this is a fully staged production. The set is attractive, with the orchestra surrounded by a barbed-wire topped chain link fence, and the chorus on a platform at the back. Though there is an incomprehensible light show in the middle of the performance, the staging also features an excellent effect, with the prisoners doubled via live, black and white, back projection.

The Jailer (bass-baritone Eric Owens), the Guards and the Chorus of Prisoners sing banal things like “It is the law! / The Law is heavy! / The Law is silent!”; “This / Is the house of correction”; “They say I stole a loaf of bread…They say I swore a false oath…They say I coveted my neighbor’s wife.” 

The Prisoner exists to be murdered by The Governor, who is set on that to achieve a generic victory. Lang presents this as some kind of self-evident allegory (he makes character types but not characters), but while Beethoven makes plain that Florestan is indeed a prisoner of conscience, Lang offers nothing about how The Prisoner came to be in his cell in the first place.

That is the difference between giving someone a name and giving him a label. Lang has followed an unfortunate path since his subversive Bang-on-a-Can days, when he wrote marvelous and important works like Cheating, Lying, Stealing and Slow Movement. His luxury minimalism is as generic as the cardboard figures in this opera. It is easy on the ear and the strong tendencies toward minor keys give it a superficial seriousness; yet it is ultimnately flat, with little affect and dramatic impact. There is nothing discomfiting or even surprising—tasteful, unobtrusive, and unimaginative, it’s the sound of a leased Audi and a mortgage.

And for an opera it doesn’t work. The orchestral palette is glass and steel, with a range from dark to light grey, and the harmonies are pellucid and pallid in equal measure. There’s just not enough tools in Lang’s kit to build a large-scale form and develop musical tension (the opera is one continuous flow of about 70 minutes). There is also little to prepare or separate the arias. At one point The Assistant sings an aria just before finding her husband in his cell that is supposed to be stirring but that emerged so flat that it took two verses for one to realize what was supposed to be happening.

The music leaves everything up to the singers and the orchestra, and the cast for the premiere was mostly a good one. Sadly, the weak link was Mathevet. She didn’t have enough vocal or dramatic strength—even singing directly at the listener, she didn’t always cut through the mezzo-forte orchestra sound, and she never established a stage presence.

The male leads were good to excellent. Each added sorely needed color to the score. Owens’ music was limited by Lang’s stiff declarative style, but Ott was warm and communicative in his sole aria. 

Oke had tremendous spark to his presence and he had one sitting at attention merely by standing still. He also had some of the most clichéd lines in Lang’s cobbled-together libretto, singing from Machiavelli, “It is better to be feared than to be loved”—just in case anyone had any doubt he was the villain.

With Jaap van Zweden conducting, the Philharmonic sounded exceptionally polished, but one felt that some greater reserve of energy would have aided the performance. But there was only so much to work with—Lang’s rhythms for his “O welche lust” stand-in, were ungainly in a way one never expects from minimalism or post-minimalism.

The concluding ensemble, encompassing all the principals and the chorus, was a perversely proud display of all the opera’s faults. Lang rewrote the gripping opening lines of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are,” into the vapid “We are born free / But everywhere we are in chains / The difference here/ Between prison and outside – / In here / You see the chains.” 

An idea that was, and remains, revolutionary and subversive became the kind of right-thinking affirmation that comforts the comfortable and threatens no one who is in a position to free anyone from their chains. This type of self-congratulation, dressed up in the best in-the-moment style, is all the rage in cultural discourse, from academia to advertising. Of course, the anthemic conclusion was met with an explosive ovation. Give the people what they want.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

2 Responses to “Freedom’s just another word in premiere of Lang’s trite “prisoner of the state””

  1. Posted Jun 08, 2019 at 5:22 pm by James Leggio

    I would direct the reader to the far more balanced review in the New York Times.

  2. Posted Jun 09, 2019 at 9:55 am by Antony Berg

    I couldn’t agree with you more. The score was so heavy and depressing and the libretto so uninspiring that sleep was certainly the better option and I took full advantage of it. Dreadful, absolutely dreadful.

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