Daron Hagen and Paul Muldoon's
first, and highly successful, opera is
based on the life of the great
American architect Frank Lloyd
Wright and Taliesin (Welsh for
'Shining Brow'), the home he built
for himself in Wisconsin. Popular
with audiences and critics alike,
Shining Brow has been hailed as a
masterpiece full of fresh ideas, and is
frequently performed. 'Hagen has a
gift for the big tune, and he serves up
some beauties' (New York Times).
'Its libretto is unusually inventive
and poetic' (Capital Times). For more information, visit the official Shining Brow website at daronhagen.com/brow
Hagen: "Shining Brow." Soloists, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, JoAnn Falletta, conductor (Naxos, two CDs).: Composer Daron Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon's first opera is based on a scandalous chapter in the life of the iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Muldoon's poetic text merges with the grateful vocal and choral lines of Hagen's eclectic score to produce a compelling piece of music theater. It comes off most effectively in this concert recording. -- Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein, December 13, 2009
If you're a listener who's already inclined to lend an open ear to performances of new American operas, then you likely have heard--and possibly were in the audience for a performance of--Daron Hagen's early-1990s opera Shining Brow. But if, as I was, you are coming to this work completely uninitiated and have only this recording as your first experience, you'll likely find said experience more frustrating than you have any right to expect, especially considering the label's usual marketing savvy and the fact that this is an opera in English with an American setting and a celebrated, real-life main character.
The central problem is, nowhere in the notes to this recording are we given any clear, step-by-step explanation of the story, which apparently is based on some events in the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and as a consequence, as you listen it's very difficult to know exactly what's going on--not a good thing if you're trying to follow the action on an audio-only recording.
What we do get are brief synopses of scenes, but they are just sketchy descriptions--a place and time, followed by itemized lists of events. But what exactly is the story and why should we care about it or these characters? In the track listing we get snippets of opening lines of arias or choruses, but without continuity and context--or a libretto!--these are meaningless blurbs: What are we supposed to make of "So much, so much, so much, so much, so..."? or, "Not musk, cedar perhaps..."?
And what are we to make of the two whole pages of notes in which composer Hagen talks about himself and the process of "creating" the opera but still manages not to offer any useful information to help us understand the point of the work? He feels obliged to mention that he was at the MacDowell Colony when he got a phone call ("back then the only way you could reach someone at the MacDowell Colony was by way of two telephone booths in Colony Hall") asking who he wanted for a librettist. Why we need to know this is a mystery (I happen to live about a mile from the spot he speaks of, the famous artist colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, so at least I can picture the scene, but so what?). He goes on to tell us which bits he composed and where (again, who cares?), and how he made a multi-colored storyboard on the wall. He offers little snippets from his diary, and how he even met with Leonard Bernstein and shared "whatever scene" from the opera he was working on. We learn what they drank (Ballantine's), how they did anagrams and crosswords, what they laughed about (who stole what musical idea from whom), and how Hagen felt Bernstein's presence when the opera was "workshopped" after his death. Again, why do we need to know this?
There were many parts of this performance that I just couldn't make sense of: what is the point of the choruses of Draftsmen and Workmen, the (crudely composed) Barbershop Quartet, the meandering Sextets, the Chef's seemingly out of nowhere "Oration", the testy exchange between the character Mamah and Carlton at a party, the role of Wright's friend Louis Sullivan, who pops in and out. Events and scenes just seem to be dropped in without any real connection to each other. Are the events true? We have no way of knowing, but even if they are, it's still puzzling why they were chosen as the subject for an entire opera. And what, if any, is the significance of the opera's title, an English translation of the Welsh name (Taliesin) of Wright's Wisconsin home?
As for the characters, as Hagen has drawn them it's difficult to care about any of them: the music does nothing to define or distinguish their personalities, nor do they actually do anything but talk and philosophize and try to explain why they are standing there or why they did what they did or why they aren't happy. In fact, there's little joy or humor here; it's all pretty dull and bleak and not very interesting. Hagen is not really a good melodist--he favors certain mannerisms to a fault, such as extending the last note of each phrase, or often finishing a line with a rising major second that ends on the third of the chord. Yes, there are bits that may remind you of Bernstein, but I wanted to hear something original or just plain nifty and memorable and dramatically catchy--but to no avail.
The voices are all fairly decent, especially baritones Robert Orth (Wright) and Matthew Curran (Edwin Cheney), but mezzo-soprano Elaine Valby's timbre has a lightish, uncentered quality that makes her sound tired (is she supposed to?), and soprano Brenda Harris' vibrato and voice placement make her words very difficult to understand. JoAnn Falletta keeps things moving at what seems like a reasonable pace, and her excellent orchestra delivers well-articulated, responsive, sensitive accompaniment. The sound in this live production (from November 2006) is well-recorded, with minimal stage and audience noise.
Ultimately, in this context it's impossible for a new listener to gain a reliable impression of Hagen's work and of its relative success as musical/theatrical entertainment. I guess you had to be there. If you were, and you're looking for a faithfully produced document of the work and the event, at least you won't be disappointed with this package. -- ClassicsToday.com, David Vernier, May 2009
Few living American composers have written more operas than Daron Hagen (six, at age 47), and among his most widely performed is the 1993 Shining Brow, about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Imagining how it would work theatrically is difficult just from hearing the recording, but the ceaselessly inventive score hooks you early on, easily embracing a wide range of predominantly tonal modes of expression, from barbershop quartet to Der Rosenkavalier quotations. The music's theatrical timing and naturalistic sense of language - so problematic in other contemporary operas - feels effortlessly right. Dramatically speaking, the portrayal of the great architect is so unflinching that Wright (played with many layers of irony by the excellent Robert Orth) borders on being too unsympathetic to carry this sizable, two-act opera. Particularly effective is the musical creepiness that sets in as Wright's high-ego world grows refracted from reality. In many ways, this is an artist-as-monster portrait; such things need to be said, and some unstable but text-attentive vocalism in this mostly solid recording doesn't obscure what Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon have so deftly projected -- Philly.com, David Patrick Stearns, April 26, 2009
Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius who behaved badly with colleagues and family. Hagen's fine opera circles around Wright's break with his wife and pursuit of Mamah Cheney, a client's spouse, and culminates with the fire and murders at Taliesin. Wright's difficult relationship with one-time mentor Louis Sullivan provides a recurring counterpoint. With a two-act libretto by Paul Muldoon, Hagen's style calls up mid-century American tableaux. In the notes, Hagen reveals how he and Bernstein would workshop the opera together. Hagen possesses the tools to carry off the effort. Unlike other recent operas touched upon in these pages, I find myself considering the content rather than its construction. At a climactic party scene, Hagen feeds in threads from Der Rosenkavalier as an elegant touch. It's a bit distasteful when an artist operates by a different moral standard, particularly when Wright's remorse remains ambiguous at the opera's close. The music, creamy with an easy lyricism, reveals its fragility when supporting singers and chorus attempt to carry it. -- La Folia, Grant Chu Covell, October 2009