Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Operas by Michael Nyman

British composer Michael Nyman got my attention several years ago with his music.

So when I had the chance to review two later Nyman operas, I was filled with anticipation. I refer to the new 4-CD set just released on Michael Nyman Recordings, providing full versions of Man and Boy: Dada and Love Counts.

Man and Boy centers around the moving story of Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, who in real life was persecuted by the Nazis for his "anti-Aryan" Merzbow art and escaped Germany in the early '40s. The story of Man and Boy picks up when he has entered England as a refugee. He strikes up a friendship with a young boy he meets at a bus stop. The boy collects discarded bus tickets, a rather pointless hobby. Schwitters too is interested in gathering these particular castoffs of everyday life for a new Merzbow collage. Schwitter's eventually courts the boy's mother, a widow as a result of the Nazi V-Rocket "Sputterbug" bombings. That's the basic premise of the plot. An underlying theme is the contrast between the monstrous cultural unreason of the Nazis versus the benign unreason of Schwitter's art. The fragility and tenuous nature of existence in the face of Nazi savagery and the need to try to continue on with life in spite of its utter disintegration also provide important thematic elements.

The music and libretto conjoin quite nicely. The cast and orchestra are totally convincing in their realization of the work. The music combines a kind of '40s dance hall quality with restless passage work and melodic cells that repeat and develop in time. It all works very well and reaffirms that Nyman has gone his own way to produce a music that is accessible yet movingly "post-modern," a term I use with reluctance but in the sense of a combination of disparate elements to achieve a new synthesis. There is the music-dance hall element, some of the minimalist tendencies, conventional tonality, orchestration that touches on a sort of neo-classicism, and some old-time jazz and pop references. The end result is most assuredly Nyman Music, just as Charles Ives' various juxtapositions produced music that bore the inimitable stamp of his musical personality.

The second opera, Love Counts, has similar qualities. It too has the various combinations of "high" and "low" musics Nyman-style. It may not be quite as compelling as Man and Boy: Dada, but it certainly has plenty of redeeming qualities and a quirky plot typical, it would seem, of Nyman's preferred subject matter. Space does not really permit a long discussion of the virtues of this work. It doesn't quite strike me as reaching the level of Man and Boy, but it is nonetheless nice that it is included as a companion piece in this set.

These are superlative performances that will undoubtedly not be rivalled for a long time to come. Nyman should not be ignored. He is an important composer and these two works are quite excellent examples of why that is so.

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