Even with my favorite composers and performers I usually don’t remember when or why exactly I started listening to them. (Why do I listen to Elliott Carter? I just know I started in the 1980s, possibly because I had read he was “difficult.”) But with Lou Harrison I know exactly when and why: when I heard Ursula Oppens play his Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony; and the why is obviously because I loved it. I headed to Tower the next day and found the Keith Jarrett recording; I see the copyright on the disc (I’m listening to it now) is 1988, which is later than I would have guessed. So as soon as I read that Harrison’s opera Young Caesar would have its (final form) world premiere at Yerba Buena, I bought a ticket. In fact I bought the ticket so early that they sold me one for a row that disappeared into the orchestra pit. Fortunately they found me another one in the front row and even better there was no one beside me.
What a swell evening! I’m not saying the work is perfect: the second act is too long, for example (the first half is about an hour and the second about ninety minutes). And I’m familiar enough with Harrison and with Asian theatrical styles to accept the formality, the repetition, and the reliance on a narrator (the outstanding John Duykers, who looked a bit like Harrison), though I can see where someone coming from verismo might be put off. But what impressive staging, singing, acting, and dedication from all involved. There were no surtitles, and none were needed. There was (hallelujah) no miking, even for the parts that were sung-spoken rather than sung out. The set was an elegant and effective series of white cloth panels that could be raised or lowered, supplemented in the second, Bythinian, half with slightly narrower panels in pink, rose, and crimson, to suggest what used to be called Oriental splendor.
Harrison avoided the usual division in musical styles between West and East, using a sort of Chinese opera sound throughout (anyone familiar with Harrison will be able to guess how the music sounds). Some other conventions were not so successfully avoided: Eugene Brancoveanu was impressive as Caesar’s lover, Nicomedes the King of Bythinia, and wore his costume (a sheer red body stocking with gold lame briefs, a cape, and piles of golden curls) with panache, but I couldn’t help feeling that at moments his behavior and attitudes were a little anachronistically camp, a little too Auntie Mame, for a royal potentate of that time. The “gay love of Caesar” angle has gotten a lot of publicity, but the opera is rightly called Young Caesar – and Eleazar Rodriguez ably shouldered the burden – rather than “Caesar and Nicomedes” since the affair doesn’t start until the second half, and is seen as a step in Caesar’s development rather than the main point of the evening (and therefore his life), making this more of a bildungsroman – bildungsopera? – rather than a straight-forward love story. Harrison and Robert Gordon, the librettist, avoided making the affair into anything overly simple or idealized; it’s clear that, loving as the interlude might be, it is only an interlude, and Caesar knows it as well as Nicomedes, even though the latter is presented as an older, more sophisticated man initiating the newcomer. (I was reminded several times of Rosenkavalier, in substance if not style.)
The interlude is supposed to teach Caesar to value chance and pleasure in addition to the Roman calculation and discipline urged by his Aunt Julia (more excellent work, this time from Wendy Hillhouse), but the point is blurred a bit, since as Caesar himself points out to Nicomedes, the sudden death of his father and the abrupt reversal of Julia’s fortunes have taught him already about uncertainty. And it’s suggested that Nicomedes’s seduction of Caesar is a delaying tactic, to avoid sending ships to the Roman wars as required by treaty. This blurring might be intentional, though, in a yin/yang way, just as Harrison’s music (nicely performed by the young and attractive orchestra conducted by Nicole Paiement, to whom I am very grateful since she was a guiding force behind the realization of the opera), blends European styles with Chinese opera and gamelan into the distinctive Harrison sound. If you like his music, I hope you were there, or get a chance to hear this work.