Young Caesar, by the American maverick Lou Harrison, stands at a considerable remove from the operatic canon, more a cult curiosity than a viable candidate even for the fringe repertory. All hail, then, to the Los Angeles Philharmonic for partnering with the LA New Music Group, the fresh-minted MacArthur Award Fellow Yuval Sharon, and Sharon's experimental opera company The Industry, to stage Young Caesar at Walt Disney Hall last June, alas for one night only. The good news today is that a digital recording is to be released on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, and Google Play on February 2.
On the evidence of the the audio, a warning about "mature content" seems merely quaint. Conceivably it refers to graphic touches in the production of which a listener will have no clue. According to the critic John Rockwell, who was there, the premiere in 1971 featured a gay orgy enacted by puppets, but that was then. (For a peek at the stage action in LA, click here.) As for the story line, whose eyebrows rise today at the discovery that Young Caesar's love interest is neither of the fiancées put forward for him by his elders, but King Nicomedes of distant Bithymnia, who owes Rome a flotilla? Our callow hero is sent to claim it, an amorous entanglement ensues, yet he achieves his diplomatic objective and in the end breaks free to embrace his greater destiny.
Like many another opera, Young Caesar has evolved since its unveiling. Published in the Los Angeles Times, Rockwell's preview of the recent performance gives an indispensable rundown of the textual and performance history. Back in 1971, Rockwell reports, he dismissed the libretto, by Robert Gordon, as "precious" and "self-indulgent" (this from the most open-minded and receptive of critics, ever on the qui vive for the shock of the new). In the meantime, much of the verbiage has fallen away. What is left of the text is terse and poetic, simplicity itself. The emotional temperature throughout is balmy.
Musically, much has changed as well. Though choruses have been added, the running time has come down quite a bit, alleviating the "pervasive, embarrassing ennui" of which Rockwell complained all those years ago. And the Asian- and African-inspired instruments Harrison originally called for have given way to a Western chamber orchestra. Yet the essential character of the opera and its exotic aural ambience would seem to have remained intact. Like Debussy at the Paris Exposition of 1889, as well as countless other musical sophisticates in our hemisphere ever since, Harrison fell hard when he first discovered the ancient Indonesian percussion combo known as the gamelan. In 1957, Benjamin Britten incorporated its bright, bristling timbres into his full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, to thrilling effect. In Young Caesar, Harrison may have assimilated the Balinese aesthetic in even purer form.
Between words and music, the mood of Young Caesar touches, with wistful grace, the sharp chord of heartache familiar from Racine's Bérénice. Unique among the playwright's tragedies in that it involves neither bloodshed nor death in any guise, Bérénice takes five acts to unfurl the tale of royal heartbreak the Roman historian Suetonius famously crunched into a single sentence. "Titus reginam Berenicen, cui etiam nuptias pollicitus ferebatur, statim ab Urbe dimisit invitus invitam." Though he had gone so far as to promise her marriage, Emperor Titus sent Queen Berenice of Palestine from Rome, against his will, and against hers. Ah, me! The sigh hélas echoes through Racine's alexandrines. Indeed, it is the play's last word.
Dominated by the ping of mallets on metal and the yearning breath of the flute, the instrumentals of Young Caesar fall sweetly on the ear. The same is true of the vocal writing, which places the most modest of demands on singers trained to work a great deal harder. The tenor Adam Fisher and the baritone Hadleigh Adams acquit themselves handsomely as Caesar and Nicomedes, respectively, without seeking to plumb depths that are not there. Marc Lowenstein conducts with a fluent hand.