About this Recording
8.559258 - ADAMO, M.: Late Victorians / Alcott Music / Regina Coeli (Pulley, Sullivan, Levalier, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, Alimena)

Mark Adamo (b. 1962)
Late Victorians • Regina Coeli • Alcott Music • Overture to Lysistrata


Late Victorians

I could not write. I had been asked to write: the project was to be a set of songs for mezzo-soprano. But I could not write.

We—I and thirty other people from my church, an adhoc hospice—had just buried Bob, a man we hardly knew until he fell ill with AIDS. And Don, whom I had just directed in an opera, was failing.

The thing that seemed unacceptable to me was how ordinary this was all becoming.

“We have grown accustomed to figures disappearing from the landscape. Does this not lead us to interrogate the landscape?” – Richard Rodriguez, Late Victorians

Late Victorians, an essay Richard Rodriguez wrote for Harper’s, October 1990, is a memoir of San Francisco in the first years of the plague. A central image was the Victorian house: those “painted lady” Victorians that waves of San Franciscans had reclaimed, had refurbished, and were now leaving empty as AIDS swept the city. The once-haunted houses were becoming haunted once again.

I carried that essay with me everywhere the winter of 1992. But I couldn’t set it. It was too long: too much. I didn’t want to write this experience. I didn’t recall choosing to witness it.

I needed to write this song cycle, and I could not.

I reread Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, particularly its chapter on Emily Dickinson. Paglia’s take on Dickinson was violently different from anything I’d read before. For the first time I saw an icy glee, a perverse refusal to look away, in a quatrain such as

Ruin is formal, devil’s work
Consecutive and slow;
Fall in an instant no man did;
Slipping is crash’s law.

That season The Washington Post asked me to review the National Chamber Orchestra’s performance of a famed Haydn symphony, the “Farewell.” In it, Haydn had incorporated a small staging joke. He meant to remind his patron prince that the musicians he was keeping in his country palace very much wanted—and deserved—to return to town. So Haydn wrote a last movement in which, person by person, section by section, the musicians left the stage, leaving only two violinists to carry on the song in a bare forest of music stands.

It played as a joke in 1732. But it seemed very different to me now.

I ended up writing something quite else for the song cycle. But another piece—this piece—had found shape. I started sketching it at once, and completed it in the winter of 1994. The formal, oblique Rodriguez text would be spoken. Four Dickinson poems, singing everything the Rodriguez would not say, would be sung. And the four movements would be linked by solo cadenzas written for players from each choir of the orchestra, after which they would leave the stage.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but now it seems to me that Late Victorians formally resembles nothing so much as the Stations of the Cross. In the Catholic churches I knew growing up, you will often find twelve friezes, or sculptures, representing Christ’s journey to Calvary and, beyond, to transformation. During Lent, the faithful walk from frieze to frieze; meditate upon the image; and move on to the next. They make a kind of living rosary. The images themselves are static: mere panels. Jesus falls the first time. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. It is the pilgrim who is dynamic, making the journey from image to image, walking the walk. It is in the heart of the pilgrim that the experience builds.

Late Victorians is meant in tribute to the living and in memory of the dead. I owe a debt of gratitude to Sylvia Alimena, to Kent Ashcraft, to James Petosa, and to the men and women of Eclipse Chamber Orchestra. And the score is dedicated to the memories of the thousands of the fallen, particularly to those of Michael Patterson, Bob Williams, Raymond Davila, and Donald Poe.

Regina Coeli

Regina Coeli is the slow movement, here rescored for strings alone, of Four Angels: Concerto for Harp and Orchestra, each movement of which presents the same theme in a different guise. Regina Coeli meditates on Mary, mother of Jesus. In Roman Catholicism, she is considered the Angelic Queen who, at the hour of her death, was assumed bodily into heaven by the seven orders of angels over whom she now reigns. She intercedes on behalf of human beings at the right hand of God.

As the music begins, strings alone—high, pulseless—linger on the rising second, the arching triplets, of the first movement’s theme. At length, the harp presents its own, simpler version: less an edict than a prayer of thanksgiving, the harp lifts the melody out of the sterner, denser harmonies of its first incarnation and frames it instead in clean C major.

Alcott Music

Alcott Music was meant simply as a souvenir for orchestra of my opera Little Women. But Alcott Music’s genesis has been surprisingly difficult. In its first version, introduced by Eclipse under Sylvia in 1999, Alcott Portraits was cast in four movements, scored for the opera’s original orchestration (wind quintet, percussion, harp and strings) and lasted twenty-five minutes. It was beautifully played, graciously received—and after its première, I asked my publisher to remove it from the catalogue. I didn’t think it worked, and I didn’t know why.

Eight years passed. Little Women appeared in over sixty-five international engagements, and I completed, among smaller pieces, a second opera and my first concerto. Then Sylvia asked that I revisit Alcott Portraits for this recording.

Rereading the piece, I realized that in 1999 it had been too early to rethink the music apart from my libretto. For example, I love the opera’s final scene, but music that worked conclusively onstage sounded anticlimactic in concert. And the piece’s orchestral reticence worked against it outside the theatre. I’d been happy with how underwritten Little Women’s instrumental part was: at its best, I hope the score gives the illusion that voice generates the orchestra’s every timbre and chord. But in the concert hall, the orchestra is the only voice you have. No wonder it had been so hard to make an orchestral piece out of an antiorchestral score!

Recognizing the problems gets you halfway to the solutions. I cut one entire movement of Alcott Portraits, and omitted from those remaining the twelve-tone music from which I’d made the opera’s recitative: divorced from large-scale design, the non-tonal sections seemed non sequitur. Why had I ignored, in the first draft, the opening moments of the opera? That dreamy prelude, coalescing into Jo’s first important theme, made an ideal introduction to the suite. Most importantly, I reduced the orchestration to percussion, celesta, harp, and strings. Now voice and orchestra were timbrally one: and compressing the kinetic orchestra gave the string-writing in particular a satisfying virtuosity.

The first movement of the new Alcott Music leads, through a dreamscape of whole tones, to a statement of Jo’s major aria, “Perfect as we are”, in which Jo’s longlined appreciation of her family’s love is interrupted by madcap digressions as she sketches out her newest potboiling story. Meg’s answering aria, “Things change, Jo”, wistful and exalted, forms the centerpiece of the second slow movement. And, in “Alma and Gideon”, the girls’ parents’ wedding music, accelerated and rescored, brings the suite to a gala finale.

Overture to Lysistrata

Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess, my second opera, is in some ways an answer to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, the joyousness of which makes it more, not less, serious a piece. I love that score, and its smart, elegant, and irrepressible overture is a model of the form: so when New York City Opera gave the Manhattan première of Lysistrata in 2006, I couldn’t resist trying to compose a comparably ebullient opening. Four chiming chords lead to orchestral treatments first of the heroine’s tantrum cabaletta, “You’re not my own”; next, to the love theme shared by Myrrhine and Kinesias, “Peace: yes! Of course”: and, at last, to the breakneck polytonal calypso ensemble that closes the first act, “From this day on”.

Mark Adamo

Close the window