Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Arjuna's Dilemma

Having owned this on CD for a good while now, I only recently sat down and studied the whole thing, listening from start to finish (mulltiple times) in order to get the intended effect the composer was looking to lay on us (at least musically). The work has definitely grown on me . . . so much so that I truly regret not having taken the opportunity to catch it in New York this past season.

Cuomo's score is a curious thing - alternately whimsical (in a good way) and profound. Its middle-Eastern/Indian flavor notwithstanding, the opera seems (to me) primarily to be jazz based. Arjuna's music strongly reminded me of the work of some of the great avant garde and progressive jazz ensembles from the 70's and 80's. One hears definite (and definitive) influences, particularly John Zorn and those familiar with Anthony Braxton and the Rova Quartet will swear at least several moments were inspired from some of his complex pieces. I also happen to think there’s some Carla Bley hiding in there, too!

Labeled a chamber opera, I'm certain a lot of Arjuna's charms were meant to be seen as well as heard, meaning some of those qualities simply cannot come through in an audio only format. I say this not to be dismissive of the composition, as clearly its original intent was to be seen AND heard and this is reflected in the score.

Cuomo skillfully weaves a fascinating sound palette blending various styles with one another, and at times INTO one another. Thus, we move from Indian raga, through more formal minimalistic stylings, to jazz riffs, and (for my money) some gorgeous polyphonic writing reminiscent of the likes of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis and, more recently, Arvo Paart. There was at least one moment where both Philip Glass's "Songs from Liquid Days" and the Boubil/Schoenberg musical "Les Miserables" came to the very forefront of my mind. This is not a bad thing (in my opinion). Though considered an opera – implying “sung” – I think the majority of the score is actually instrumental, and decidedly more jazz than "modern classical" music. Only one "legitimate" solo voice appears, Arjuna himself, here sung by tenor Tony Boutté, who's free, open sound blossoms beautifully in several of the scores biggest bursts of melodic invention.

In several bits of purely instrumental music, I heard an almost identical "riff" familiar to me from John Adams' "Vishnu" chorus from Doctor Atomic (written about the same time). Considering the subject matter at that precise moment, any number of parallels seem to come into into play, adding layers of richness both ironic and theatrical.

All in all, this is a noteable addition to the ever expanding genre that is "modern opera" - and a most welcome one, to boot!

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