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The future from two American vantages

Times Staff Writer

What next? A good question. A good opera.

Elliott Carter’s first, and thus far only, opera had its premiere in Berlin in 1999, just before the composer’s 91st birthday. Now, finally, “What Next?” has been staged in America -- at Tanglewood, the lushly green Berkshire summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its student-training program, with the chipper 97-year-old composer on hand to take a bow.

And although it has taken an absurdly long time for this concise masterpiece of the absurd to reach the American stage, the timing, just as it always is with Carter’s music, turns out to be impeccable and full of sophisticated surprises.

When asking what’s next, it never hurts to also investigate what was. Tanglewood did this Friday afternoon by placing Carter’s 42-minute work on a triple bill with two neglected 20th century operas: Hindemith’s Dadaist miniature, “Hin und Zuruck,” and Stravinsky’s madcap Russian farce, “Mavra.”

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Meanwhile, Bard College, an hour’s drive south, mounted Schumann’s single, nearly forgotten opera, “Genoveva,” whose absurdities are mostly unintentional, with engaging enthusiasm Friday evening. Then, Sunday afternoon at Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, N.Y., what came next was Los Angeles composer Stephen Hartke’s new opera, “The Greater Good.”

The temptation is to compare “What Next?” and “The Greater Good.” Not only are they maiden operatic efforts by notable American composers, but they are something curiously rare on the American lyric stage -- comic operas. Both are conversation pieces, with a small group of characters thrown together by circumstance. Both works have a connection to film. “What Next?” took its inspiration from Jacques Tati’s slapstick “Traffic.” For “The Greater Good,” Hartke turned to Guy de Maupassant’s short story “Boule de Suif,” which also inspired the classic John Ford western “Stagecoach.”

No stopping him

But the differences say more than the similarities. Carter’s late-late style (he is still composing up a storm and a second opera is not out of the question) is one of exquisite refinement. In “What Next?” -- which has a mysteriously floating text by the Welsh music critic Paul Griffiths -- six stunned characters search for an author after a traffic accident but don’t find one.

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Are they dead? Probably. A couple who were on the way to a wedding can’t quite remember who they are. The groom is either Harry or Larry. His bride is a performer who cannot stop her coloratura. His mother’s a nuisance. His father, Zen, is an aging hippy/spiritualist. There is an astronomer, Stella, whom Zen fancies, and a boy of 12.

They want to go on. But where to? How? Just as they find themselves, they slip away.

Carter’s music makes no concessions to immediate graspability -- each character exists (or almost exists) in his or her own sound world of timbres, melodic shapes, harmonic intervals and rhythms, none of them easy. But everything miraculously fits together. Movement is quicksilver, the brain must work very fast to seize the ineffable.

The triple bill was a student effort, although with James Levine, in seemingly fine fettle after his four-month recovery from rotator cuff surgery, conducting the Carter. The orchestra was marvelous, but the singers were too traditionally operatic, big of voice and word-swallowing.

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“The Greater Good” is more traditional, intended for immediately intelligibility. Philip Littell’s libretto sticks precisely to Maupassant’s story, although the colloquial American language is all his own.

Here, a coach full of French passengers flees Rouen during the Franco-Prussian War. But they cannot reach safety until the voluptuous prostitute they disdain, called Boule de Suif (often translated as Butterball), finally agrees to offer her favors to a Prussian officer. Maupassant meant his story from 1880 as bitter social satire, since these unpleasant doyens of provincial society once more shun poor Boule de Suif after they get what they need from her. The opera ends, as does the story, unhappily, with Butterball in tears.

Hartke’s lively score alludes to many kinds of music, old and new, and takes its time. He shows a flair for theatrical writing, capturing atmosphere and mood, and his gracious vocal writing helps words leap out with precise meaning. He and Carter both use percussion to great effect. In “What Next?” the clatter is complex and indefinite, creating a sense of inscrutability. In “The Greater Good,” the percussion gives us the horse hoofs and a toccata of silverware on plates for dinner.

Carter’s sound world is all his own. Hartke, who teaches at USC and is some 45 years younger, picks up more from what’s around him. The mattress under Butterball squeaks like Ligeti’s machine music, much to everyone’s amusement.

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But there is, perhaps, too much that’s good in this expansion of a short story to a full-length opera. Everything is explained. New details -- such as someone’s missing her cat, allowing for cute cat music -- weigh down the drama. Since these are characters who refuse to change, exploring their inner lives leads nowhere. Still, the singers were all impressive, with soprano Caroline Worra making an especially winning protagonist. And Stewart Robertson’s conducting was to the point.

Mulling role reversals

I wonder what would have happened if Glimmerglass and Tanglewood had switched directors (and maybe casts). Doug Fitch asked for more silliness than useful in “What Next?,” whereas David Schweizer’s virtuosically fluid direction of “The Greater Good” was a little long-winded.

What’s next for “The Greater Good” remains, of course, to be seen -- though Naxos was on hand to record it Sunday. In opera, nothing can be predicted. Schumann’s “Genoveva” has terrific music but is so stupid onstage that no one wants it.

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Given a bit of a theatrical push by a young Danish director, Kasper Bech Holten, compellingly sung by a handsome young cast and convincingly conducted by Leon Botstein, the work came momentarily to life at Bard, and at times it was a thrill. But no one will probably ever take it seriously. A work with hints of early Wagner, it, like “The Greater Good,” fights history and is padded. The resolution means little.

For now, “What Next?” really does seem what’s next.


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