July 23, 2020


David Lang: prisoner of the state. Alan Oke, Jarrett Ott, Eric Owens, Julie Mathevet , Rafael Porto, John Matthew Myers, Matthew Pearce, Steven Eddy; Men of the Concert Chorale of New York, and New York Philharmonic conducted by Jaap van Zweden. Decca. $14.99.

     It is one of the ironies of music history that by far the best-known and most-popular French rescue opera of all time is German. It is Beethoven’s Fidelio, and while the term “rescue opera” was not formally applied to it and similar works, most of them French, until many years after Beethoven’s death, the basics of the form were already established in the composer’s time. They involve, among other things, a focus on societal issues and high ideals more than on individualized character – and this focus is clearly one that resonated with Beethoven even before he created Leonore (1805), which eventually became Fidelio (1814). This sort of focus resonates with many people today, too, including David Lang (born 1957), who had the clever if slightly sacrilegious idea of deconstructing Fidelio and turning it into a work for our times called prisoner of the state (all small letters: Lang’s dislike of capitals is an affectation). In our age, purity of ideas and beliefs seems to be considered a necessity for someone to be deemed serious about issues of importance, and in that vein, Lang eliminates from the original libretto all the matter he deems extraneous, such as the mistaken-identity elements that lighten the atmosphere somewhat but can seem ill-fitting with the grander portions of the opera (they actually work better in Leonore than in Fidelio). Then Lang grafts onto the original some material intended to make its philosophical argument more direct and intense: a kind of “Machiavelli aria,” some thoughts taken from Jeremy Bentham and Hannah Arendt, and more.

     The result is curious, overdone, over-serious, less dramatic than the original despite the multiple arias written in hyper-dramatic style, and always intriguing although ultimately unsatisfying. Some of Lang’s ideas work very well indeed: having looked into some of the reasons people would have been imprisoned in Beethoven’s time, he has the prisoners give a list of the offenses for which they have been incarcerated, in some cases stating their innocence and in others admitting their guilt. This is part of the way in which Lang changes the focus of his work from marital love to prisoner support. Other material is much less successful, with the ending of prisoner of the state particularly disappointing: there is no resolution at all – instead, the characters address the audience directly, intoning with monumental obviousness, “The difference here between prisons and outside – in here you see the chains.” Oh yes, we get it – we are all prisoners in one way or another, and prisoner of the state describes what each one of us is, and there is no triumph possible, but with solidarity, “if you can see us, we can be free” (the work’s final lines). This is all hyper-earnest and thoroughly puerile, no matter how sincere.

     Certainly the principal performers on the new Decca recording of Lang’s work give it their all: Julie Mathevet as the Assistant (the original Leonore role; but now she, like everyone else, is a symbol, denied the basic humanity of a name); Jarrett Ott as the Prisoner; Eric Owens as the Jailer; and Alan Oke as the Governor. Certainly Jaap van Zweden leads the chorus and New York Philharmonic with decisiveness, intensity and a strong sense of commitment. And to give the music its due, much of it comes through with suitable strength and dramatic (although often over-dramatic) flair. But prisoner of the state, as it progresses, forces the audience to move from glimmers of a personal story through which they can observe higher ideals (which is what Beethoven created) to what is essentially a lesson plan detailing the trials and tribulations of life in an imperfect world. Ho-hum.

     Strangely, Lang, who has in the past reimagined the works of many earlier composers, has either missed something very significant in his rethinking of Beethoven or has chosen not to share his knowledge with the audience. It is this: the original ending of the Brecht/Weill production of The Threepenny Opera (1928) is not the angry, defiant chorus with which modern productions often conclude. Instead, it is an additional verse for the Moritatensänger, a quiet conclusion to the famous song that introduces thief and murderer Mack the Knife. The last lines of that final verse are: Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln/ Und die andern sind im Licht./ Und man siehet die im Lichte./ Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht. That is, loosely, “Some live always in the darkness, while the others live in light. And you see the ones in brightness – those in dark are out of sight.” This is almost exactly the point Lang makes at the end of prisoner of the state, even to his words, “Down in this darkness, sometimes we feel your light on us. We need your light. You need to see us.”

     If Lang did not deliberately here echo The Threepenny Opera (which itself is an update and reconsideration for a new age of a work of exactly two centuries earlier, The Beggar’s Opera [1728] by John Gay and Johann Pepusch), then the coincidence of near-identical theme and verbiage is extraordinary. There are further echoes (or deliberate updates) here, too. Lang retains the Jailer’s aria about gold, rendering the words as: “In this world, without gold you can’t live, you can’t be happy. …Without gold someone else will get the power and the love.” And in the Governor’s “Machiavelli aria,” Lang soon follows the famous line, “Better to be feared than loved,” with the incongruous: “Men are cowards. Men want money.” And this is also reflected in that final portion of the Moritat, commenting on the improbable deus ex machina that rescues Macheath (the same sort of out-of-nowhere rescue provided by the arrivals of the King’s Minister in Fidelio and “the Inspectors” in prisoner of the state). Brecht’s aptly cynical and bitter words are, Ist das nötige Geld verhanden/ Ist das Ende meistens gut. That is to say, “things tend to turn out well when there’s enough cash on hand.”

     What Lang thinks he is doing in prisoner of the state is bringing “rescue opera” themes into a new era and focusing on their philosophical import rather than on the characters used to embody and present them. But this is just what Brecht and Weill did nearly 100 years ago: when the King’s Minister shows up to free Macheath, Mac’s own words – soon echoed by Polly – are, Gerettet, gerettet! …Wenn die Not am höchsten, ist die Rettung am nächsten. “Rescued, rescued! When the need is greatest, the rescue is nearest!” (In fact, rescue opera is known in German as Rettungsoper.) Ultimately, prisoner of the state strips Fidelio (and Leonore) of humanity and personal connection, proceeding with unrelenting seriousness and without the wry cynicism that pervades The Threepenny Opera, and offers music that is effective enough but does nothing to enhance, or even distract from, Lang’s opera’s didacticism. Lang does not bear compositional comparison with Weill, much less Beethoven, but that is not really at issue in prisoner of the state. What does matter is whether this refocus of Beethoven (intentionally) and Brecht/Weill (perhaps unintentionally) communicates its themes in a more pointed and meaningful manner for the 21st century than do the earlier works. Certainly it tries to do so, wants to do so. But it never quite measures up to the high standards that Lang sets for the work and for himself.

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