Beethoven Recast For the Time Of Trump

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The prospect of a modern composer attempting to put his own stamp on the story that inspired Beethoven’s only opera “Fidelio” should have been an opportunity. And David Lang’s new opera, “Prisoner of the State,” which had its world premiere in a staged version last week at the New York Philharmonic, provided some moments of musical insight. The main impression, though, was a commentary on the cynicism and political cant of the arts world in the time of Trump.

Beethoven himself was never entirely satisfied with his one opera. He fiddled, so to speak, with it for many years, including writing three separate overtures. The source material, though, inspired him to compose sublime music that has held the stage for 214 years.

The story is a familiar genre of the time, a “rescue opera” in which a faithful wife goes undercover as the youth “Fidelio” to search for her husband who has been arrested and stuck in a secret prison cell where he is slowly starving to death. At the moment of truth when the governor of the prison is about to kill the prisoner, she draws a pistol and tells him he must first kill his wife.

But the brilliance of the scene Beethoven set was that the rescue depended on a seemingly divine intervention — the arrival of a visiting government minister of a just monarch whose laws have been betrayed. The trumpets that signal his arrival are a reminder not so much of the exercise of rightful authority but of the clarions that will sound the heavenly day of judgment. In “Fidelio,” the prison’s jailer switches sides and aids the innocent rather than to go on assisting evil. Beethoven then concludes with a joyous choral scene that tests the musical ideas that produced the final movement of his Ninth Symphony.

Mr. Lang’s music has its moments especially in choral and orchestral passages that feature his minimalist style, dark harmonies and use of percussion. The Philharmonic, concluding its first season under Jaap van Zweeden, was more than up to the challenge. Much of the vocal music, though, was awkward and ungainly despite the valiant efforts of the singers, especially tenor Alan Oke as the governor, as well as the always reliable Eric Owens as the jailer, Jarrett Ott as the prisoner, and soprano Julie Malthevet as the assistant. The staging, directed by Elkanah Pulitzer, was replete with projections, fencing around the stage and carried on in the midst of the orchestra, was effective in pumping some life into the grim proceedings.

Lang sticks fairly closely to the original source material in his libretto. He does include some ponderous references to Jeremy Bentham, Rousseau, and even Hannah Arendt. They provide a superficial intellectual gloss. His chorus of prisoners does speak of their alleged crimes, something missing in the Beethoven. Lang, though, cuts out the supporting characters and makes his protagonists virtual stick figures with no names, let alone back-stories.

What Lang does provide is a cynicism that is disheartening. The point of “Fidelio” was the triumph of not merely a faithful spouse but of righteousness that causes even a venal and cowardly jailer to finally listen to his better angels. In the denouement of “Prisoner of the State” we are instead treated to a monologue from the villain in which his murderous plot — which is not foiled — is justified with words that make him appear to be a stand in for 21st century Republicans:

“No man is ever safe or free

Our people say:

Keep our land safe

Keep our secure

Keep it strong

Keep it proud

Keep it glorious and free.

That is what your neighbors want from me”

When the prisoner and his wife express hope that they will be saved by the arriving “inspectors,” the governor coldly answers:

“In a better world

You could be saved

In a better world

The inspectors could arrive

At just the right moment

In a better world

We would all be free

How can you think that there is a better world?

While the character of the governor is not wearing an orange wig, the “resistance” to President Trump should feel right at home at the Philharmonic. It gives us a universe in which the chorus of prisoners concludes that there is no difference between the prison and the outside and that all people, not just them, are in chains.

Beethoven’s faith in the triumph of Enlightenment philosophy was hopelessly optimistic in light of the next two centuries in Europe. But the subversive nature of his faith — and the majestic music he composed to embody it — continues to inspire. Lang’s heartless and hopeless alternative is not only less noble but neither inspires nor entertains.

Whereas Beethoven’s theme was inherently revolutionary in an age of tyrants, Lang can do no better but to echo the sort of dull and complacent belief that the system is rigged and there’s nothing well-meaning and right-thinking people — like those who attend the Philharmonic’s concerts — can do about it other than to virtue signal their disgust with their ideological opponents.

What a sad coda to Mr. van Zweeden’s first season. The orchestra demonstrated that it is the better for his leadership. But as part of a week of performances dubbed “Music of Conscience,” the applause “Prisoner of the State” generated on its first night tells us more about the audience’s dismal view of contemporary politics than whether the battle for freedom is failing more in our time than it was in that of Beethoven.


Mr. Tobin is editor in chief of and a contributor to National Review. @jonathans_tobin.

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