When it comes to picking winners, critics have something less than an unblemished record. After Bizet's opera "Carmen" made its debut in 1875, the Parisian critics drubbed it mercilessly. One critic dismissed it as "labored and confused," while another curmudgeon claimed that Bizet had perpetrated "an assault on melody itself." So much for perceptive critical analyses.

Now, it is possible that Anthony Braxton is another Bizet, and his one-act opera "Trillium--A" is just another "Carmen" in the rough. But don't wager more than a sou on either proposition.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of UC San Diego's Mandeville Center, the UCSD music department presented Braxton's commissioned opus "Trillium--A" Saturday evening in Mandeville Auditorium. Considering that department's international reputation as a center for new and experimental music, no one expected Braxton's work to be a tuneful homage to Gian Carlo Menotti.

While no single word could encapsulate "Trillium--A," it could be called a combination existential morality play, hortatory divertissement and jazz oratorio. By the less charitable, it might be labeled a hodgepodge of pretentious posturing.

Braxton's links with traditional operatic genres, however, should not be overlooked. His static staging had the look of most contemporary Monteverdi revivals, and his well-integrated dance commentaries were no newer in concept than Louis XIV's opera-ballets. His orchestral idiom relied heavily on the restless, opaque textures of Alban Berg.

To his credit, Braxton is a man of ideas, and some of his ideas hold promise. For example, each of his main characters was shadowed by a costumed, on-stage instrumentalist. This device boldly reinforced each personage and allowed multiple choreographic possibilities. Indeed, some of these solo instrumental arias proved arresting.

If opera can succeed without plot or dramatic situation--one of Braxton's less salutary ideas--"Trillium--A" did not prove the contention. Composed of pure ideas and excursions on "the state of human existence," his libretto was alternately tendentious and tedious, striking the ear as a collage of axioms randomly excised from an ontology text. Add to this Braxton's sing-song, elliptical style of declamation, and Chinese water torture begins to seem an appealing alternative.

Though modest, the UCSD production was colorful and inventive. Some of the finer singers available locally--baritone Philip Larson, mezzo Carol Plantamura and soprano Sarah Lopez--lavished their highly trained vocal resources on Braxton's strange melodies. With carefully modulated miking, the singers kept pace with conductor John Silber's formidable instrumental battery and offstage chorus. Terri Sprague's formal choreographic designs and the catlike crawls of her solo dancers alleviated some of the work's musical fatigue.

Trained to accept any avant-garde assault with utter sang-froid, the Mandeville audience was predictably unflappable and appreciative. One suspects that were fire to envelop the building, it would be nonchalantly applauded as the latest innovation in performance art.

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