In 1991, composer Gian Carlo Menotti threw something of a tantrum at the Spoleto Festival USA, which he had founded and nourished in Charleston, S.C., with great care for 15 years. He was livid with the board for approving a contemporary art exhibit that he labeled a "sophomoric stunt."
I started remembering that controversy part-way through "Criminal Element," the work by Baltimore-based composer David Smooke that was given an admirable performance by the adventuresome group called Rhymes with Opera on Saturday at the Windup Space (the premiere was the night before in Brooklyn).
Wait, wait -- I'm not calling the new piece sophomoric or a stunt. Let me explain.
One of the works I still remember well at the Charleston art show that so enraged Menotti was a giant, intriguing egg-shaped piece of sculpture. According to a note posted next to it by the artist, there was another object (I forget now what it was supposed to be) inside the egg -- but you couldn't see it. You had to take it on faith.
By the same token, you have to take on faith Smooke's description of "Criminal Element," his not-exactly-an-opera that he says is based on the actual case of the guy in France whose fake trading nearly caused a financial markets meltdown a few years ago.
Smooke invented his own language for the singers -- it sounded to me like ...
a dialectal cousin of the one Lucy and Ethel made up when they pretended to be Martians landing on the Empire State Building.
Although varying degrees of emotion were detectable in the articulation of the vocal lines, I can't say that a clear-cut scenario or any specific dramatic events could be discerned in the 45-minute piece.
So, in the end, I decided it was akin to that big egg in Charleston -- there may or may not have been something deep inside, but, either way, the surface was cool enough.
Smooke has acknowledged Philip Glass as an early influence, which could be traced in the pulsating patterns of "Criminal Element." I thought of Morton Feldman, too; there is a lot of soft and static music.
The singers -- sopranos Elisabeth Halliday and Bonnie Lander, baritone Robert Maril -- were at their most technically secure in reflective passages, but they handled more aggressive bits with plenty of spirit. Each vocalist also ably tackled the unusual instrumental assignments required along the way -- a micro-tuned ukulele, a melodica and what I think was a dulcimer (used with particularly haunting effect in the final portion of the work).
The primary instrumental complement in the score is a string quartet, called up to produce quite a variety of subtle sounds. The West End String Quartet performed this role admirably.
However "Criminal Element" is ultimately classified genre-wise, it adds up to a highly creative, absorbing experience.
There were two other short vocal works on the long program; composer George Lam conducted all three surely.
"Someone Anyone," a 20-minute opera with music by Lam and libretto by Martin Zimmerman, struck me as rather labored. The story of a prostitute being taken for a ride, so to speak, by a client didn't fulfill its ominous potential. And for all of the 'f' bombs thrown around in the text, the words didn't really ring true.
The vocal writing turned awkward from time to time, but the use of hummed notes for the baritone at the start had a striking effect.
Ryan Jesperson's "Orphee Redux," a short scene from a longer opera, also has an adult theme -- a woman is drawn into a sex club environment in early '80s New York; her husband tries to rescue her, a la Orpheus leading Eurydice from Hades.
The music could use more color and inventiveness (tremulous string chords don't have that much dramatic weight anymore), but there are very effective passages, especially a lyrical duet for the husband and his sister-in-law. Maril's singing was particularly impressive, warm in tone, full of dynamic nuance (he sounded like he would be ideal for Britten operas).
During its opening set, the West End String Quartet encountered a few pitch discrepancies, and the acoustics of Windup Space did the players no favors, but the music-making had flair.
Schnittke's Quartet No. 3, haunted by ghosts of past composers, received a taut performance. Kyle Gann's jaunty/lyrical "Concord Spiral" curled its way nicely through the ensemble. And Ruby Fulton's "Being for the Breakdown" proved engaging, from the opening melody trying to break out over pizzicato patterns to the octave-obsessed reflections at the end.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF RHYMES WITH OPERA AND DAVIDSMOOKE.COM