Today's question: Does success make an artist less daring? Discuss.
As evidence for the affirmative, I submit Deems Taylor's 1931 opera Peter Ibbetson, performed last week by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. In addition to composing, Taylor (1885-1966) had a multimedia career as critic and commentator in print, on radio, and even in Hollywood (as the narrator of Fantasia). The 1927 Metropolitan Opera premiere of his first opera, The King's Henchman, was such a smash that two days later the board of directors voted him a second commission, and he still holds the record for total Met performances among American composers.
Benaroya Hall, April 30
For his second commission, Taylor chose Ibbetson, adapted from a stage version of George du Maurier's 1891 novel. Despite hitting a home run with his first at-bat, Taylor retreated; in his second opera, he seemed intent not merely to cater to the tastes of the audience, but not to intrude upon its attention in any way. His music is in purest film-score style—sumptuous and neutral, as if he were afraid it might distract from what meager story there was. (The opening Technicolor waltz and a scene in Act III built on a relentless death-march ostinato were two of the very few moments that caught my ear.) I'm not sure whether the original novel was already purged of anything unseemly or unsavory, like incident or character, or if Taylor purged it himself.
There are basically two kinds of operatic love plots: The lovers start out together and are torn apart, or they start out apart and overcome obstacles to get together. Ibbetson, perversely, takes neither path. The lead tenor and soprano roles, Peter and Mary, Duchess of Towers, float through drawing rooms and hotel parlors, randomly bumping into each other as the years pass; it's well into Act II before they recognize each other as Gogo and Mimsey, childhood sweethearts. (Boy, those names don't help.) They appear in each other's dreams, too. Radames and A嵐 they ain't, and the lack of urgency in their amour is theatrically fatal.
More interesting is Ibbetson's family subplot. In one of those dreams, Peter realizes that his odious uncle is actually his birth father. It's a surprisingly contemporary twist in this three-layer nostalgia torte (an opera from 1930 set in 1850 with music from 1890)—this may be the repertory's only recovered-memory opera.
Applauded at its debut, Ibbetson nevertheless had exactly two hearings anywhere (two performances in 1960 in upstate New York) between its initial 1930s Met run and last Thursday. It's not a bad opera—there's not a cheap or unpolished moment in it—just not quite compelling enough to be stageworthy (unlike the SSO's last resurrection, Howard Hanson's explosive Merry Mount). Ibbetson would probably be most bearable as some special production honoring a fading diva. Lauren Flanigan, who sang Mary beautifully, seems bound for a first-class career, and perhaps when she retires in 30 or 40 years, some company will do her this favor, and it will be charming.
Despite Ibbetson's weaknesses, the evening must still be reckoned a triumph. The standard operatic repertory, the "canon," functions as a shroud for obscure works as well as a pedestal for accepted masterpieces. How heartening it was to see a stage full of people, Schwarz at the lead, who were not content to accept conventional wisdom, and who were moved by curiosity and healthy skepticism to lift the shroud and present such a lovely and conscientious performance.