The Boston Phoenix review of: Democracy

Not all black and white: Scott Wheeler’s Democracy premieres in Washington
By Lloyd Schwartz

"...and Jeff Bruckerhoff’s punchy dramatic lighting were among the stars of the show."

Some contemporary composers won’t write an opera because it’s too hard to get a new opera produced. But composer Scott Wheeler, director of Dinosaur Annex, one of Boston’s premier contemporary-music groups, has had unusual success in this respect. His witty, inventive one-act stage fantasy from 1988, The Construction of Boston, using a poem by the late Kenneth Koch as text, has had two Boston productions (one passable, one not). A native of Washington, DC, Wheeler has recently had the good fortune of a commission from Plácido Domingo’s Washington National Opera for his latest operatic work, the ambitious full-length Democracy: An American Comedy, which uses as a libretto senior playwright Romulus Linney’s 1968 dramatization of two novels by Henry Adams, Esther and Democracy, along with information about post–Civil War political scandals in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. Last weekend, it had its premiere.

As you might guess from the title, Democracy, which deals with the betrayal of idealism, is a perfect piece for our nation’s capital. The complex plot interweaves two love stories. The main characters are two earnest, well-intentioned women: wealthy widow Mrs. Madeleine Lee (subtly acted and sung with bravura confidence by soprano Keri Alkema, a graduate of Washington Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program); and Esther Dudley (Amanda Squitieri, a current member of that program), a "bohemian" photographer (she wears pants), and the daughter of the Supreme Court’s chief justice (an atheist who "says that going to church gives him un-Christian feelings"). Each woman falls in love with an inappropriate man: Lee with a scheming senator who has a checkered political past and Dudley with a charismatic and manipulative preacher, a 19th-century Billy Graham. Both affairs are doomed, and for Wheeler and Linney, their failures constitute the "happy ending."

Wheeler is a disciple of Virgil Thomson, so it’s not surprising that both of his operatic works should share elements with Thomson’s masterpieces, Four Saints in Three Acts and his Susan B. Anthony opera, The Mother of Us All, both difficult but inspired collaborations with Gertrude Stein. Wheeler’s musical language is essentially tonal and tuneful. The score is infiltrated with suggestions of hymn tunes and parlor ballads, marches and dances. And as in Thomson, historical settings are cross-fertilized with modernist theater devices. Like Four Saints, Democracy uses a "compère," a narrator who addresses the audience. Here, it’s the witty Baron Jacobi, the not-very-closeted Bulgarian ambassador (campy tenor Robert Baker), who alienates the political powers-that-be because he has too much on them and isn’t exactly reticent about his contempt. This opera, he tells us, is the story of "how I lost my job."

Washington Opera didn’t stint on some production values. There wasn’t much set to speak of, but director and set designer John Pascoe’s sumptuous costumes — white ball gowns and black tuxedos, with Mrs. Lee the only character wearing a different color, green — and Jeff Bruckerhoff’s punchy dramatic lighting were among the stars of the show. Pascoe kept the action fluid (I especially liked the way he staged Wheeler’s cinematic alternations between two parallel love scenes on the two halves of the stage). But except for Alkema as the conflicted Mrs. Lee and Kyle Engler as Esther’s sharp-tongued spinster aunt (indifferent to any possible husband’s morals, she just hates the idea of a man on top of her), Pascoe didn’t get much nuance of characterization from the singers, most of them Domingo-Cafritz fellows just about to launch into professional careers. Anne Manson, with snap and an ear for Wheeler’s variety of orchestral color, led the accomplished Youth Orchestra of America and the George Washington University Chamber Choir.

Wheeler is a brilliant and energetic orchestrator, but much of Democracy shares with many contemporary vocal works more musical invention in the accompaniment than in the vocal line. I wish the singers had had more-soaring, more-memorable tunes than I thought they did on a first hearing; and the characters need greater musical distinguishing. Grant, especially, needs some fleshing out (maybe with an aria). Wheeler may also have been too faithful to his source. Linney’s Democracy seems like a well-made play, with witty repartee and some compelling characters, but there’s an unfortunate turn into melodrama. As a book for an opera, it’s too talky, and by keeping too much of the dialogue, Wheeler straitjacketed himself into too much recitative; this flattens out the pace and hides the larger forest of a dramatic shape among the trees of small talk. The two most gratifying musical events are the central duets for the two heroines, one in each act. I wish the confrontations between the women and the men had had the same intensity.

What’s best about Democracy is — I’m almost embarrassed to use the phrase — its "contemporary relevance." "These dead shall not have died in vain" are the words we see on the drop curtain before the opera begins. "George Washington stood above politics — that can’t be done today," sings the unsavory senator. The conflicts are also larger than merely personal ones — including issues of "faith-based" belief as opposed to "reality-based" evidence. Democracy: An American Comedy is ambitious in its aims, and its intentions are admirable. It needs work. And then it needs to be done here.

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