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Glass premiere is toast of Austin

January 22, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Austin Lyric Opera is brave, and its bravery paid off Friday night when it presented the triumphant American premiere of Philip Glass' latest opera, "Waiting for the Barbarians." A parable about the futility of an arrogant Empire waging a military campaign without effective intelligence or cultural curiosity, it is also an opera of outrage about the use of torture and sexual humiliation against political prisoners.

The 2,800-seat Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas, which is just up the road from the state Capitol, was nearly full. The town was just coming to life again after a three-day ice storm had shut it down. But neither continued cold and rain nor standstill traffic prevented a hardy turnout of black-tie socialites and politicos, casually dressed students and cowpokes (or at least those sporting the look).

More to the point, the reception for "Barbarians" was one of tremendous enthusiasm: The entire audience gave the opera a rapturous 10-minute standing ovation. Whistling and hooting reminded a visitor he was not only in the heart of Texas but also the city that thinks of itself as the capital of live music.

There were obvious reasons for Austinites to feel pride in the premiere. The opera is based on the already classic 1980 novel by the South African writer J.M. Coetzee, who received his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas and who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003. Glass is popular here and visits annually.

Meanwhile, "Barbarians" offered Austin Lyric Opera, a regional company celebrating its 20th anniversary, an opportunity to stretch. This "Barbarians" is the opera no other American company would touch.

Commissioned to help celebrate the opening of a state-of-the-art opera house in Erfurt, Germany, "Barbarians" had its premiere in September 2005, where it was hailed as Glass' greatest opera in years. Pittsburgh Opera had intended to give the American premiere but backed off. New York City Opera and other American companies were on board, then off. The Iraq war made the opera a hot potato, but so did an elaborate production designed for Erfurt's high-tech house.

Still, Austin found a way. Guy Montavon's production, imported from Germany, may be fluid to the point of bland bustle, but George Tsypin's set is striking. A series of collage-like scrims rise and fall and require automated technology, which Bass, as do all other American houses, lacks. The production was simplified for Austin but still not simple and, without automation, manpower prevailed.

"Barbarians" is a sad, shocking and painfully pensive story about a mild-mannered, pleasure-seeking magistrate who peacefully manages a remote outpost in an unspecified region and time. Glass' music, commercially successful, long ago lost its ability to shock. But he can still write melancholic, wistfully pensive music -- and better than ever.

He can, through his signature minor chords, add a melancholic tinge to just about anything. He can, with his well-honed rhythmic devices, underscore any sort of action, be it, in "Barbarians," torture, sexual allure or a combination of the two.

Glass' arpeggios are, of course, familiar, but they are also perfect for this novel, which has been faithfully and expertly, if unimaginatively, adapted by librettist Christopher Hampton. The beautiful score breaks little new ground as well. Yet that is also the beauty of it. The burnished orchestral colors not only capture Coetzee's tone but offer what I suspect is a nonthreatening medium for a strong message. The composer doesn't force a listener to react so much as invite the audience to think. He persuasively brings us along with him.

Richard Salter, who created the role of the Magistrate in Erfurt, made an impressive figure on stage. It is the most theatrically demanding role Glass has created. In opposing the Empire's attack on the migrant Barbarians, who live outside the town gates and with whom he has maintained peaceful relations for 20 years, the Magistrate falls victim to the state.

Hooded, chained, beaten, dressed in a woman's undergarments, swung on a rope and forced onto all fours like a dog, he suffers for his own moral laxness and for his devotion to his benign pleasures. A more voluptuous voice might have been nice, but Salter seemed to get vocally stronger the more degradation he suffered. The unreasonable size of Bass and its dry acoustics surely added to his strain.

Adriana Zabala, the Barbarian Girl whom the Magistrate takes in after she is tortured, was extraordinary, a young, vibrant mezzo-soprano.

Eugene Perry and Wilbur Pauley, Col. Joll and Officer Mandel, the cruel leaders and torturers of the Empire's expeditionary forces, were both scary.

Richard Buckley, Austin's music director, conducted with a sense of lyrical grand sweep. The chorus, which spent much time in the pit as background and appeared on stage as the townsfolk, and the orchestra were effective despite the Bass' bass-deficient, dulling acoustics.

The good news is that "Barbarians" is the last opera Austin Lyric Opera will perform in Bass. A new opera house opens next year in South Austin.

In the meantime the company will roam. And I hope, buoyed by the success of "Barbarians," continue to dream and dare.

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