David Lang’s “the loser,” given its West Coast premiere Friday night by Los Angeles Opera at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, is sort of, but not really, about Glenn Gould.
Gould’s the winner in as much as he’s portrayed as the greatest pianist of the century. An unnamed narrator in this spellbinding one-man opera tells the story of a friend, Wertheimer, a fellow piano student. Gould’s nickname for the suicidal Wertheimer was “the loser.”
What made Wertheimer, who had the goods to be a world-class pianist, as did the narrator, a loser? The pursuit of virtuosity, that’s what. The profound lesson of Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel, upon which Lang has closely based his opera, is that the virtuous pursuit of virtuosity, necessary for the highest of achievements available to the human race, can easily lead to our undoing, to the ruination of life and art.
Yet the great irony, the great allure and the sheer virtue of virtuosity is you can convey neither its value nor its threat without it. Bernhard’s writing in the “The Loser” has a musical virtuosity that rivals James Joyce. And what assures Lang’s hypnotic opera of being an inescapable winner is a mesmerizingly virtuosic performance by Rod Gilfry destined for the annals of opera.
The audience is seated in the balcony. Dressed in a tuxedo, Gilfry stands on a lift against a background of darkness, as if a floating apparition. For an hour, the baritone relates through Lang’s dexterously edited libretto (adapted from Jack Dawson’s superb translation of the original German novel) the wry story of Wertheimer and Gould.
It begins with all three studying piano with Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in the early 1950s. The narrator’s percolating memories give a surrealistic account of Gould’s career and the failures of the other two leading up to Gould’s premature death of a stroke at 51, and Wertheimer’s suicide in reaction to it.
Horowitz, of course, never taught there. Gould, who twice performed at the Salzburg Festival, never studied there. Gould did die of a stroke, but at 50. Bernhard did, in fact, study in Salzburg at that time before giving up the piano for writing, just as his rambling narrator in the novel gives up music to become an insufferable philosopher.
Realizing that neither he nor Wertheimer — nor even Horowitz, it is suggested — can possibly obtain the obsessive transcendence that Gould brought to Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, the narrator decides what’s the point of accepting anything less. There can be only one God.
But without the quest, no life is worth living. Wertheimer goes into the human sciences and falls apart in an especially imaginative way when his sister stops caring for him and gets married. The piano haunts him to the end. The philosopher chirpily gives his rare Steinway to a teacher whose daughter destroys it in no time.
Did I mention that much of what is disturbing about classical culture and ambition happens to be very funny? Bernhard created the seemingly impossible in his fancifully autobiographical novel, a humane nihilist for an Austria obsessed with the inglorious glories of a past. The author then killed off his nihilist when he died in 1989, leaving in his will that after his death there could be no performances in Austria of any of his works as long as they remain in copyright.
Although it’s legal to bring Bernhard to the U.S. lyric stage, a lingering flavor of violation only added more vibrancy to Gilfry’s performance. In Lang’s own staging, which he first created for his opera’s premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2016, Gilfry might be Bernhard from the beyond.
Everything, including and especially Lang’s score, serves to provide heightened conspicuousness to Gilfry’s presence. The ethereally, unstoppably lyrical vocal writing, and the ethereally, unstoppable pings and pongs from the instruments that are amplified in such a way as to seem to float in the ether, bring Berhard to life by creating for the audience the uncanny feeling of being Hamlet and seeing the ghost of a father.
An amplified quartet of viola, cello, double bass and percussion, conducted by Lesley Leighton, is far away onstage, unseen by the audience in the darkness. The libretto divides the text into seven short scenes that are demarked by different qualities of ghostly illumination. Jennifer Tipton’s spectral lighting design and Andrew Cotton’s subtle sound design convey the supernatural.
Still, this works only because Gilfry articulates every word to mean something — and sometimes more than one something — though pitch-perfect attention to every aspect of articulation. His comic timing, punctuated by Buster Keaton-worthy facial expressions of deadpan contentment, savors absurdity.
Gilfry’s vocal range and palate is wide. I don’t recall ever before hearing the baritone go so startlingly deep into the low bass register. Amplification mimics the headphones effect of hearing voices in your head, that somehow he seems physically larger than he is, and he becomes all mouth or all eyes.
At the end, Gilfry turns away toward the stage, which lights up to show pianist Conrad Tao playing what sounds like a fractured, distorted memory of “Goldberg” Variations, Bach like history slipping away from both Gould and Wertheimer. All is transience, making loser and winner one. Ultimately there can be no God.
Without question, this production (a product of the Bang on a Can collective, of which Lang is a founder) is the most brilliant yet of L.A. Opera’s Off Grand series of new work. But only two performances over the weekend for an audience small enough to fit in the balcony is not nearly enough. It surely could fill that balcony for weeks. That’s not, of course, the way opera companies — nor the Ace — normally operate. But “the loser” does not operate the way operas normally do either.