The Fire Within

Yet another barn-burner from the magical Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Jun 13, 2001 at 4:00 am
To many concert goers, the two scariest phrases in classical music are "12-tone row" and "modern opera." So it took a ton of raw chutzpah for Opera Theatre of St. Louis to decide to stage Miss Havisham's Fire, a modern opera composed on the 12-tone-row model. Their bravery becomes our pleasure.

In 1979, American composer Dominick Argento was commissioned to write an opera based on Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations as a vehicle for legendary soprano Beverly Sills. Sills demanded two things: long acts so she could really rev up her magnificent voice and an extended solo scene as the finale. Argento delivered in spades; the opera consisted of two exhausting 80-minute acts culminating in a spectacular mad scene. On opening night, though, Sills became ill, so the part of Aurelia Havisham, too much for any singer who wasn't Sills, had to be voiced by a different diva each act. It was a mess. The premier was a near-disaster. It was never performed again.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of Miss Havisham's Fire fully exploits the advantages of having a mature, living composer. Argento slimmed the opera to two graceful and satisfying hours, handed director James Robinson a tightened dramatic structure and removed gimmicks from the plot. The 1979 whodunit has become a moody gothic drama, thick with psychological and musical subtexts.

Aurelia Havisham's descent from eccentricity to madness after being jilted at the altar is juicy meat for an opera. The dramatic frame of the opera is an inquest into her death in a fire at her London mansion. Told in flashbacks, the story's scenes from the past are the background and scenes from the present the foreground of the stage. Allen Moyer's set and Christopher Akerlind's lighting conjure a memory-driven background, all shadows and specters and rosy lighted visions of youthful pasts. The foreground, the bleak and grasping present, is shades of gray, hard whites, sharp angles and stark contrasts.

One of the few things critics agreed on about the original production was that, for all its flaws, Havisham had some of the best music written for voice in the last part of the 20th century. Boy, were they right. Argento's score flows from the leanest unaccompanied and barely orchestrated passages through eerie choirs of harmonic pointillism to robust choruses of contrapuntal patterns that merge to form great swells of melody drenched with emotion.

You don't think of 12-tone music as being strong on tunes, but this score certainly is. Miss Havisham's Fire is as much a musician's opera as it is a singer's opera. The 12-tone row was invented by Arnold Schoenberg and popularized by Frank Zappa. In it, you create a sequence of notes not in any major or minor scale, then compose using various combinations of those notes in their original order in the rows. At its worst, it's a weird mathematical game. At its best, it's gorgeous. This is difficult music to play, but in the sure hands of conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, it is very easy music to listen to. OTSL's razor-sharp crew of St. Louis Symphony veterans gift-wraps and delivers every bit of musical pleasure to be had from this exquisite score.

If this style is hard to play, it's even harder to sing. The 24 men and women whose voices weave this tale do extraordinary work. In the duets, trios, quartets, quintets and choruses, each voice is a distinct point of sound serving the greater whole. A constant strength in OTSL's productions has been the subsuming of individual egos to the advantage of the artistic whole. There is not a second of excess in these performances. From Erie Mills' virtuoso portrayal of young, then middle-aged, then wily senile citizen Havisham to Keith Phares' older, wiser Pip to Patricia Risely's Estella as tortured torturer to Carolyn Betty's wrenching Nanny Broome and on through the cast, every performance is a gem.

"Miss Havisham's Fire" is a thoroughly pleasurable night of high art. If you love classical music but don't think you like modern music; if you like modern music but don't think you like opera; if you're the kind of jazz listener who finds the deep textures and rhythms of later Ellington or Mingus exciting, but think classical music is for European intellectuals, go hear it. It could change your mind and open your ears.