A hero takes morphine, but it won't ease the pain

Daniel Schlosberg is a freelance writer.

July 26, 2005

In the insular world of the gritty avant-garde, British composer Brian Ferneyhough possesses hard-core status. While the latter half of the 20th century saw composers as aesthetically different as Steve Reich, Gyorgy Ligeti and George Rochberg reject the severe academic styles of Webern and Boulez, there have been some holdouts, and Ferneyhough is an extreme case in point.

His first full-length opera, "Shadowtime," received its U.S. premiere Thursday at Rose Hall as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Even for the most devoted lovers of thorny music, it was a difficult night.

Ferneyhough and poet Charles Bernstein selected the most abstruse of subjects in Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish philosopher and critic whose range and depth of intellectual interests would seem to defy operatic treatment. "Shadowtime" begins with Benjamin on the French-Spanish border in 1940, fleeing the Nazis. Later that day, Benjamin would kill himself with morphine, but "Shadowtime" uses his last hours as a jumping-off point for all manner of metaphysical speculation.

Benjamin descends into an underworld of his own thoughts and confrontations, turning the evening into a grand opera of cultural references to Sylvia Plath, Hitler, Einstein, Liberace and both Groucho and Karl Marx, to name just a few.

Where "Shadowtime" succeeds is in grappling with some pretty esoteric subjects, including the role and nature of history and time. Bernstein's highly developed libretto demonstrates extreme virtuosity in its wordplay and its attention to the musicality of sound. It furthermore communicates the ominous fate of Benjamin and all of Europe, for that matter.

In his writings, Benjamin called into question the role of biography in artistic and intellectual creation. Ferneyhough and Bernstein underline what Benjamin himself argued: that the creative element shapes one's life more than vice versa.

Yet "Shadowtime" is a failure, and the music is the biggest loser. While devotees of Ferneyhough find a lyrical, even elegant undercurrent to his style, the music here holds virtually no sustainable interest, let alone elan. While no one expects a melody or even a perceivable rhythm, Ferneyhough fails to give the listener even a modicum of access.

There is also a severe disconnect between the complete seriousness of the music; the witty, sarcastic, and sometimes outlandish libretto; and the way Benjamin's thoughts are supposed to navigate between the two.

While the expert new-music specialists performed masterfully Thursday, and while the production was both subtle and surprising, the audience thinned as the two-hour, intermissionless opera progressed. The most massive exodus oddly occurred in Scene 4, which featured the evening's truly memorable performance, by pianist and narrator Nicolas Hodges.

So extreme was the difficulty of Hodges' part, which requires performing an impossibly complicated piano solo while reciting existential poetry while being pulled across the stage, it made one forget about Ferneyhough and Bernstein and the almost Malthusian progression of cultural figures, and concentrate on one amazing musician just doing his job.

SHADOWTIME. Music by Brian Ferneyhough. Libretto by Charles Bernstein. Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam. Attended Thursday at Rose Hall, Time-Warner Center, Manhattan.

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