The Construction of Boston
Chorus and Orchestra of The Boston Cecilia/Donald Teeters.
Naxos 8.669018 Total Time: 59:07
Summary for the Busy Executive: Opera non opera est.
Scott Wheeler's self-styled opera, The Construction of Boston, takes
a text by Kenneth Koch, written for a high-class Sixties "happening"
in New York, in which the artists Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely,
and Niki de St. Phalle (she of the plaster, paint, and .22-calibre
firearms) "constructed" their vision of Boston. The poem I find charming,
a love letter to a great American city. About twenty years later, Wheeler
decided to set the poem as an "opera" - that is, a stage work for singers
and orchestra. He asked Koch for additional lines to tell the audience
what was to take place, since the artists were no longer available, and
Koch responded with a witty prologue, spoken by the character The Opera,
who explains himself.
If opera is drama, Boston is not an opera at all, but a masque,
where abstractions and inanimate objects give an account of themselves.
Musically, the work is a locus classicus of postmodernism, big during
the late Seventies and Eighties. You will hear Copland, Thomson, Weill
and several others. Wheeler studied with Thomson, and Boston owes a lot
to Thomson and Stein's The Mother of Us All. Even Koch's text, I think,
owes something to Gertrude Stein's previous example. The orchestration
glitters. The choruses are beautiful. The solo stuff is good enough,
if not spectacular.
In spite of all that, I find Boston fundamentally unsatisfying, an
in-joke of the Sixties New York art scene taken to Rococo lengths.
Milton's Comus isn't my favorite work, either. I smell a whiff of
self-congratulation in it, whereas The Mother of Us All tells me about
the Nineteenth Century, the political status of women, and even love.
The singers are fine, the orchestra alert. Donald Teeters keeps things
moving. I'm perfectly willing to admit this opera isn't my cup of tea,
but I can see how it would appeal to others without my hangups.
One thing more: no libretto. Naxos directs you to a copy stored on its
web site. I admire Naxos's attempt to hold down costs, but this annoys
me. It's a PDF file, which forces you to choose between following the
libretto on a computer screen while you listen or printing off fifteen
pages, due to wasteful formatting.
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