Moving Shadows, Constant Stars – Young Caesar

Moving Shadows, Constant Stars – Young Caesar

The Industry - L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group production of Lou Harrison's Young Caesar, libretto by Robert Gordon, directed by Yuval Sharon, Walt Disney Concert Hall, June 13, 2017

Young Caesar is born of a certain moment – a definably Californian, forward- and global-looking moment. In Lou Harrison’s music and the awkwardly framed conceits of its libretto by Robert Gordon, there is yearning, rather than the ‘ambition’ we might associate with the subject: yearning for an idyll of serenity, an embrace of time that touches both ancient epochs and the infinitude of the cosmos. (It’s – may I say this? – soooo Santa Cruz – of that moment.) Yet this Caesar was ambitious in its own way for the time it was written. It floats – and it makes perfect sense that sea voyage figures significantly in the plot. Harrison was aiming at a sustained lyric sequence or gambol with the structure of this story – really a kind of progress, except this ‘progress’ would also encompass ‘regress’ (and maybe regret). It’s a story about beginnings as well as the ambitions that come later in the history we know. It’s only natural that it unfolds as a dance as much as an opera; and it was inevitable that Harrison would be drawn to Javanese shadow puppets (those of the original productions apparently quite authentic) and shadow puppetry generally. The music itself – long lyrical motives in scales and intonation that mimic (or virtually reproduce) gamelan figures – lends itself to a continuous enfilade of various pairings, serenely ordered assemblies and regroupings, and the occasional divertissement.

It’s really a kind of court dance – and that is more or less the way Yuval Sharon and his Industry/Los Angeles Philharmonic cohorts have staged it here – with broad white runways curving down from a platform upstage and encircling the ensemble of L.A. Phil New Music players, which in addition to winds, spare strings (though including harp which figured prominently in certain sections of the score) and keyboards (the always essential Vicki Ray at piano and Lisa Edwards at pump organ), included an array of eastern stringed and percussion instruments that encompassed gamelan, and eastern zither and reed intonations and timbres. Musically, it channels a kind of Ravel chinoiserie by way of Henry Cowell and Virgil Thomson.

But it’s also a long dance not quite sure which aspect of the history it favors – the political tug-of-war (which was often literal and bloody) or the family saga, which in the case of Julius Caesar frequently intersected. I’m not quite sure if that’s what hung Robert Gordon up in putting together his exposition-heavy libretto – but it continues to weigh down the dance. Or simply interrupt it – since a good deal of it is delivered as straight narration. And however much punch narrator Bruce Vilanch could put into his speak-sing-chanting delivery, it did little to urge the dance-action forward. (A silent reading of Robert Graves would be far livelier.) Fortunately, Sharon makes maximal use of the backdrops – not simply as scrims for the shadow puppets, but as moving panoramas (projections beautifully designed by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) that evoke both classical decoration and classic mid-20th century design and illustration. During those moments when the narration (or for that matter the arias) dragged (or when I simply lost the thread of it), those beautiful projections were delicious relief.

I almost wonder if Gordon (and Harrison?) were slightly hung up with the novelty of situating a de facto homosexual relationship in a historical (and classical) context. ‘Get over it and get on with it,’ I can imagine anyone from Graves to Wilde to, well, Shakespeare advising them. (Consider the way Shakespeare addresses the dynamic between Caesar and Marc Antony. The passion there goes somewhere beyond political ambition – and I’m sure most of us were aware of that before we were out of grade school.) Fortunately (as Graves also reminds us), there are interesting women to push the story forward – and Harrison has not only given us a Julia, but the aunt Julia to mentor as well as match her nephew, and Nancy Maultsby makes the most of her role. Delaram Kamareh does pretty well, too, with her slightly mournful lines as Caesar’s young wife, Cornelia.

And then, after a bit of bloody family drama which plays far more tediously than it should, it’s all about the boy (Adam Fisher) Nicomedes (of Bithynia – played by Hadleigh Adams) is mad about. Well, as the masque (or is it the character himself?) wants to (constantly) remind us, you take your chances. The problem with this is that it’s too frequently the same chance (and always with the wrong partners – that much is as true to life as to history) – and also that the extended recitatives (as well as narration) really don’t do much to drive the plot, the dance forward.

The flip side of Chance in Harrison’s scheme is Time – the infinitude of which, as aunt Julia reminds the youthful Caesar is a luxury only the dead can enjoy. Sharon and his Industry collaborators certainly don’t squander it. The opera (which at one point was close to two hours) has been trimmed to a manageable 90 minutes-plus. But narration, recitatives and arias all need a fresh scrub. (Or maybe Gordon, et al. just need to have a look at I, Claudius and The Sopranos side by side.) And maybe the opera’s notion of time itself demands fresh examination. That would be at least as compelling as anything fluid about young Caesar’s sexuality.    

But what Sharon, the L.A. Philharmonic, Industry, et al. give us finally is a finished work – the first really compelling, finished production of this opera fit for the opera/dance stage – or a king’s court. Harrison’s/Gordon’s characters are far too cultivated to be ‘masks’ for our most visible global oligarchs, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to see such a dance playing out at the Kremlin – a ‘phallic riot’ to offset the ‘pussy’ edition of a few years back across town at the Church of Christ the Savior – that icon whose debut 2,000 years earlier presaged the end of Rome’s Caesars.

As Harrison’s one-time contemporaries, Sonny and Cher, might have put it, the beat goes on.