In This One-Man Opera, It's All in His Head

09.08.16
Karina Canellakis
The New York Times

Intriguing ambiguity permeates every element of David Lang’s “The Loser,” a mysterious 60-minute chamber opera. Or is it an austerely staged concert work? Or an in-your-face monologue for baritone?

Adapted by Mr. Lang from Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel, “The Loser” had its premiere on Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s opera house in a boldly unconventional staging devised by Mr. Lang. The novel (originally published in German) is in the form of an interior monologue by an unnamed narrator. Through meandering, obsessive ruminations, the narrator recollects a life-turning (imagined) encounter in 1953, when he, then a piano prodigy, and Wertheimer, a friend and also a prodigy, studied with Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. The young Glenn Gould was also a student. Gould’s staggering genius has a transcendent impact on Wertheimer and the narrator, but ultimately undermines their identities. The narrator abandoned the piano, we learn. His monologue takes place years later after Wertheimer has committed suicide.

Another composer and librettist might have been tempted to flesh out the story into a drama with three characters. Mr. Lang embraces the severe intensity of the monologue format in his adaptation.

Gould was a galvanizing, distinctive artist, equal parts genius and eccentric. People have strong feelings about him. For Mr. Lang, the story Mr. Bernhard tells is “not at all about Gould, Horowitz or classical music,” as he writes in a program note, but about character development and perfectionism, about “how we justify our lives to ourselves” and “how we learn to appreciate beauty and become alienated from it at the same time.”

Mr. Lang captures the conflicted emotional currents of the story in his elusive, austere music. On the surface the narrator’s confessional, acutely detailed monologue hovers between long stretches of intense recitative and passages of lyrically enhanced arioso, sometimes poignant, sometimes chillingly detached. At first the instrumental music is mostly just slow, skittish, staccato notes. But these flecks become insistent rhythmic riffs and quasi-melodic patterns.

“The Loser,” as Mr. Lang suggests, explores the basic issues of how we fashion our identities. Still, the mingling of inspiration and envy is something aspiring artists in all fields have always grappled with. Mr. Bernhard’s choice of Gould as the talent that triggers suicidal thoughts in Wertheimer and bitter self-abnegation in the narrator was fascinating. Gould’s playing was always controversial. Yet, with its uncanny clarity, even at breathless tempos, and the purposefulness behind every note, Gould did seem the definition of a possessed genius.

Mr. Lang asks a lot of his audience in “The Loser,” an unrelenting monologue. Yet the score is a model of how music can animate words. The text is set with impressive clarity, and Mr. Gilfry sings every phrase with crisp diction and dramatic point, delivering phrases with virile energy, sudden bluster, or, during vulnerable moments, an aching confusion that takes you by surprise. He is becoming the singer of choice for new American operas, after his triumph as Walt Whitman in the premiere of Matt Aucoin’s powerful “Crossing” in Boston last year.

Read the rest of the review here