Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Douglas J Cuomo's Multi-Stylistic Chamber Opera "Arjuna's Dilemma"

One version of the "complete composer" of the 21st century is one who is bi-musical; that is, the composer deftly incorporates the vocabulary and syntax of a great number of styles, both in and outside of contemporary classical music per se. I've been covering several such "post-modernists" on these pages, and today we turn to yet another.

Douglas J. Cuomo's chamber opera Arjuna's Dilemma (Innova 697) not only fits the bill in this regard; it gives the music lover much of interest from the listening point of view. The libretto is based on the Bhagavad Gita and the poetry of Kabir. The opera focuses on the principal character's quest for a deep knowledge of what is, which is in keeping with the subject matter of the B. Gita.

The libretto in turns makes it natural to incorporate and adapt South Asian musical elements to the operatic idiom, and Cuomo does that well. Those stylistic strains further combine into a unique and convincingly blended stew of Garbarekian jazz elements, a dash of minimalism, a contemporary choral idiom and chamber instrumentalities that evoke a straightforward sort of simplicity one associates with Virgil Thompson's operatic scoring. That is, they evoke it in the sense of "being in a lineage that includes" as opposed to "derives their existence from...". And there is also an oblique reference to vernacular song that also seems in the lineage of works like Robert Ashley's Atlanta. And then there's the pioneering Carla Bley work Escalator Over the Hill for a lineage of multi-stylistic operatic works that look to South Asian forms as part of the whole. (And I can't really omit Ravi Shankar's movie scores as having some relevance in the overall lineage at hand.)

A well-balanced ensemble prevails. There are two principal singers, a four-voiced chorus, and a small chamber group. The latter includes tabla master Badal Roy and tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini, both of whom have some prominent roles to play in parts of the score.

The point of it all though is that the music hangs together despite the stylistic disparity, and it does so in memorable ways. It is such a rich mix in fact that as I write this I listen to the music for the fifth time, and I am still getting new insights in the process. I think perhaps another five times and I'll truly begin to digest all that is going on.

The libretto in itself contains some true wisdom. It's something one should experience for oneself. That's true of all music of course, but description does not equal the actual experience. Maestro Cuomo has fashioned a vital work that demands your attention, then rewards it with much of merit. I suspect I'll spend some number of years to fully appreciate this one.

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