Eighty Years of Music Leading to a Brief Encounter

May 2, 2009

previn Last evening’s world premiere of André Previn’s powerful setting of John Caird’s perfect libretto based on the haunting David Lean movie, Brief Encounter, was in turn based on a one-act play of Noel Coward, Still Life. Even with a lineage like that, a success is not guaranteed. In this instance, however, the success was entire.

There is no point in transferring a story from one medium to another unless something is thereby gained. It would be foolish to insist that an effective work of art like the Coward play or the Lean film needs to be supplemented via other means. But when — as in this case — values are magnified, new relationships of word and emotion are brought into relief, new emotional recollections are evoked, and new pleasures bestowed, the contributions of the new medium are not only commendable but to be celebrated. And I have been celebrating in the hours since I was overwhelmed by this opera.

I will give two instances of reverberant devices that only opera can add to a drama like this one. When Laura, the woman who is suffering the pangs of a love that doesn’t fit in with the rest of her life, is with other people who are prattling on with gossip or with crossword clues, her own agonized thoughts are sung in expressive duet with the quotidian banality of the other character’s utterances. This technique is utterly artificial and completely like the experience of real life at the same time. And only opera can re-present this.

Also, at the catastrophe of the final goodbye between Laura and her temporary lover Alec, we experience Alec’s expressive singing of his feelings for her and their permanence while, downstage in his accustomed easy chair, Laura’s quietly longsuffering husband Fred is singing with him the very same words. In both cases they are dramatically and psychologically true, but with completely distinct implications for the universe that all three inhabit. Again, only opera can portray all this at once. And rivetingly.

It was fitting that, the night before the premiere, a smaller, less formal event honored the 80th anniversary of the birth of André Previn. I sat immediately behind him and Anne-Sophie Mutter during this musical evening and was profoundly touched to see a physically feeble man of great mental and creative vitality react to the highly apposite musical performances that were devised to celebrate his life. Even though, from my teenage years, Previn’s work — particularly as a performer — has had a profound effect on my own life, I determined I would not be one of the people running to him afterwards to tell him how wonderful he is. For one thing, what does one say to increase the satisfaction a person must feel after he has received four Oscars (from eight nominations), a knighthood, and practically every honor the music world affords? But when we stood at the end, there he was: facing me directly. I stammered, “Maestro, I want to tell you that I heard you play Mozart piano sonatas thirty years ago in Pittsburgh, and I consider you the best Mozart pianist I have ever heard.” Whereupon he looked at me with an evident pleasure that could not have been feigned and told me that nothing I could have said would have made him happier. Every once in a while, one does the right thing.

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LATE UPDATE: After posting the above from the Houston airport, I found myself at Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic blog. In one of those gratifying instances of synchronicity, I find that he has today blogged about the experience, as a repressed, lonely, lovelorn teenager in England, of “memorizing Brief Encounter.” While I hope new generations of conflicted, teenaged romanticists experience Coward and Lean, I trust that Previn also will lead them to new manifestations of the cathartic emotions of this powerful story. Surely a CD (and, preferably, a DVD) is in the offing.

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