Monday, May 12, 2008

Man on the Moon: An Opera about Buzz & Joan Aldrin

Jonathan Dove has created a joyful, touching and thought provoking drama of such intimacy covering such a broad spectrum of emotion and events tied to the first lunar landing, that it’s difficult to believe all of this could effectively be captured in a work of such brevity. But it works. Nathan Gunn and Patricia Racette should have won some sort of acting awards for their moving portrayals of Buzz and Joan Aldrin. (While each looks distinctively like themselves, their resemblances to their roles are almost uncannily spooky).

This is the fourth work I’ve heard from Mr. Dove, and I feel I know what to expect, yet each time, end up being surprised. Initially, his music often seems like a spin-off of John Adams. Yes, he does use many similar effects (those famous minimalistic repeated brass chords, woodwinds racing up and down scales and arpeggios seemingly faster than humanly possible, etc.,) and yet, such such densely, richly orchestrated writing doesn’t feel necessarily like part of the “minimalism” movement. What truly distinguishes Dove’s operas from almost anyone else writing in this genre is this most important thing: his attention to, and setting of his texts. Each time a character sings, his or her words take on a richer, larger expressivity than had they been uttered by an actor, extending the emotional range to, well, operatic proportions, which is precisely the point. In this regard, Dove has exceeded anything else he’s previously accomplished in this genre.

His writing for both Mr. and Mrs. Aldrin is rather powerful stuff. Buzz’s role runs the gamut from witty pre-flight check-up jitters covered by macho-bravado to the opera’s most poignant and revealing aria where the astronaut – a likeable but slightly vague man, opens his eyes in heart in a moment of extraterrestrial beauty. Nathan Gunn’s tight, flexible baritone is perfect in this music and his voice and Dove’s writing for it sound as though tailor made. Gunn portrays the nonchalant astroscientist with a bravado that covers up myriad insecurities and a manic-quality belying his depression. Gunn also captures the darker side, Aldrin’s almost blinding anger at being demoted to the “2nd” when NASA selects Neil Armstrong to be the First Man on the Moon. But something happens up there and the aria Gunn sings is simple and beautiful. Since this is a work written for television, the visual element cannot go unmentioned. We are given one of those impossibly beautiful shots of the earth as seen from the moon and Dove’s score here captures aurally the breathtaking sight Aldrin must have felt; the sense of awe and wonder as well as the humbling knowledge that he is the first human to have ever seen this before. A daunting task to put down in music and another composer might have done it differently, perhaps better even, but in this context what Dove achieves is no less than remarkable and Gunn infuses the moment with brilliance. Simultaneously, Racette's Joan, years later listening to this recounting of her beloved’s epiphany, understands, but too late. This makes for for some pretty powerful stuff.

Racette’s Joan is a wonder. A nervous, martini swilling, chain smoking wreck she moves from her self-medicating to magazine cover smiling nuclear wife and mom as quickly as she can crack that dazzling smile. She looks a little puffy in those great yet somehow ghastly 1970’s designs and she sounds like a million bucks. Again, Dove writes some exquisite melodies and Racette nails them all, including some powerhouse high notes and, in particular, one ravishing high pianissimo. The music capturing the lunar landing with Armstrong’s heroic belting out of those famous words “The Eagle has landed!” – and what ensues – the brief, moment of triumphant joy is shared between the Control Room scientists in Houston, and Aldrin’s family listening from their living room, with Joan’s voice soaring über alles, is as joyous a bit of operatic writing as has been written in the last 100 years. Joan ends the scene, singing in a state of near ecstasy “I always knew, if they could land, then they could leave, if they could leave, they could fly. If they could fly, they can come back to earth. Buzz will come home!”

As “high” as that moment is, Dove, the dramatist does something remarkable here, as, on the same breath as her last syllable, Joan repeats the phrase, “Buzz will come home” twice more, lower and her emotion changing from spousal joy to a sort of unknown fear of what that return will bring. It’s a brilliant moment and again, Racette nails the instant change of emotion with a unique dramatic flair. This work is truly unique - a genuine hybrid and virtually impossible to stage live requiring an enormous cast, its 58 scenes clocking in at a mere 48 minutes.

I purchased my copy through (I am not affiliated with premiere, just a happy customer) and couldn’t be happier with the quality. I am only a little sad (but not surprised) that this remarkably accessible work on a very American subject has never aired on American television. The performances by all, especially Racette and Gunn are truly noteworthy. Anyone with less than an hour to spend and the desire to be moved by something new - really should check this out!


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