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Review: David Lynch's 'Lost Highway' gets an otherworldly operatic treatment by Yuval Sharon

Review: David Lynch's 'Lost Highway' gets an otherworldly operatic treatment by Yuval Sharon
Actor Jeff Burrell as Fred and soprano Elizabeth Reiter as Renee in Yuval Sharon's Frankfurt Opera production of Olga Neuwirth's "Lost Highway" (Monika Rittershaus / Frankfurt Opera)

FRANKFURT, Germany — Olga Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway,” which is based on David Lynch’s magnificently mysterious (even for him) 1997 film, is a magnificently mysterious opera (even for her). It takes a story operating in an inexplicable fourth dimension and adds a fifth, which, in a sense, means nothing. What’s yet another imperceptible dimension, anyway?

More than you might think, now that this weirdly 2003 Los Angeles-set opera that closely hues to, yet fantastically distinguishes itself from, its Hollywood original is being given a new Frankfurt Opera production. Director Yuval Sharon adds yet another dimension or two (by this point, who’s counting?) to the mix.

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Enter the green men.

Frankfurt surely thought it was going to the source by hiring one of L.A.’s hottest young artists, the founder and director of the experimental opera company, the Industry (famed for inventing the limousine-opera “Hopscotch”) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s imaginative artist collaborator.

Sharon also happens to be the hottest young opera director in Germany at the moment, where he made his debut this summer as the first American director at the Bayreuth Festival, with a feminist, blue-bathed production of “Lohengrin.” Sharon also happens to be well known in Frankfurt, having mounted an award-winning production of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” and a video-enhanced staging of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in Karlsruhe, an hour away by bullet train.

Unlike new operas based on films these days, Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway” neither adds new wine to old bottles, nor does it attempt to penetrate the inner being of a character through lyric, text and score. The libretto by the disturbingly forthright Austrian Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek and Neuwirth trim, but otherwise change barely a word and only one scene of the Lynch and Barry Gifford screenplay.

So true to the movie, the composer wrote, around the time of the “Lost Highway” premiere in her hometown of Graz, Austria, that she wasn’t even any longer sure why she had written the opera. That uncertainty is precisely what makes this a work of dramatic genius.

What Neuwirth, who was 35 when she composed the opera, has added — with an elaborately haunting 90-minute score for a virtuosic new music ensemble, electronics, actors and singers — is atmosphere galore. And since Lynch happens be, himself, a master of atmosphere, and “Lost Highway” is his most vexing dance of deception, the value of the opera is in providing Neuwirth alternative sonic universe. It is exactly what we need to comprehend that there is more than one way of perceiving reality, assuming reality even exists.

Hence, I’m guessing, Sharon’s green men.

The plot is Lynchian. An avant-garde saxophonist, Fred, supposedly kills his beautiful but unhappily distant wife, Renee, whom he suspects of infidelity in their starkly impersonal modern house. He is arrested and sentenced to death but astonishingly vanishes from his maximum-security prison cell, somehow replaced by a teenage auto mechanic, Pete. Renee is transformed into the insatiable femme fatale porno actress, Alice (both were played by the same actress, Patricia Arquette in the film), the girlfriend of the thuggish Mr. Eddy. Spurred on by Alice, Pete kills and robs the playboy Andy.

Pete and Alice head to the desert. To make an increasingly surreal story short, Pete finds Mr. Eddy and Alice together in a desert motel. She’s become Renee again. Pete slits Mr. Eddy’s throat and is once more Fred as he drives off into desert oblivion as if launching into space, the police on his tail. Then, there is the mystery man — but enough already.

Sharon brought to Frankfurt a pair of regular L.A. collaborators, Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, to create the sets, video and lighting for the Bockenheimer Depot. The century-old former-tram-station-turned--performing-space is where the opera company mounts adventurous off-site projects. The upper half of the split-level set is designed for front screen projection. The bottom level is an eerily radiant lime-green cavern, where creepy men in the same glowing green body suits move stage properties and usher out characters.

The projections occasionally show the chamber orchestra, which is placed behind the audience’s bleachers, and sometimes singers are magnified on screen. Other times, the projections serve as settings that may or may not reference Lynch. They can be realistic or psychedelia, or both at once. Then again, the screens can also simply be scrims for the actual staging behind them.

Clearly there are a lot of symbolic levels going on here. Unfortunately, Doey Lüthi’s kitschy costumes cheapen everything they touch.

Again with one blaring exception, the performance Sunday night (the second in the run that continues through Sept. 23) proved superb. The new music group Ensemble Modern is one of the best in Europe and was excitingly conducted by Karsten Januschke. The electronic soundscape put the listener inside a magnificently pungent sonic space.

Neuwirth’s score takes you gradually from one Lynch alternate reality. There is no singing until Fred (the actor Jeff Burrell) turns into Pete (baritone John Brancy). The progress is from a frosty otherworld electronic environment to greater and greater musical expression. Mr. Eddy (the flamboyant tenor David Moss) doesn’t so much sing as vocally erupt. The Mystery Man is aptly a countertenor (Rupert Enticknap).

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Every character has a distinct style. Throughout it all, the role of the orchestra grows from a ravishing Lynch-like dreamscape to intricate, phantasmagorical complexity where new music abstraction, Kurt Weill and Monteverdi are all at supernatural home.

The key role is that of Renee/Alice. Whether as Fred’s icy wife or Pete’s insatiable lover, she is a woman true to her own feelings, lacking in deception in a world where there is nothing else real. She generates more mystery than the Mystery Man, which is the secret of her incredible allure. Soprano Elizabeth Reiter, however, is more the abused Renee and the purposeful Alice who wears her motivation on her sleeve and in her vocal cords, as though an everyday Carmen or Melisande or Lulu.

It is a near-operatic scandal that “Lost Highway” has never been produced in L.A. and that Neuwirth’s extraordinary two following operas — “The Outcast” (a feminist “Moby-Dick,” with a libretto by Gifford) and “American Lulu” — have never been performed in America, despite their American themes and English-language librettos.

Indeed, Neuwirth, who, at 50, has long been one of the consistently most interesting composers in Europe, has few U.S. champions outside the International Contemporary Ensemble in New York and the L.A. Phil (which will perform her “Masaot/Clocks Without Hands” next month). The single American “Lost Highway” production was a cautious student effort at Oberlin 11 years ago.

Sharon has expressed the hope that his “Lost Highway” will be taken up by the Industry. Change the costumes and find the right soprano, and this becomes a priority.

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