MICHAEL NYMAN: Facing Goya (complete opera) – Winnie Bowie, soprano/ Marie Angel, soprano/ Hilary Summers, contralto/ Harry Nicoll, tenor/ Omar Ebrahim, baritone/ Michael Nyman Band/ Michael Nyman, conductor – MN Records 121/122 (2 discs), 133:50 + Bonus Disc—Man and Boy: Dada (Act Two samples); Love Counts (Act Two samples) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****1/2:
Michael Nyman (most notably of The Piano fame) has always seemed to me a composer who tries to set way-too-complex subjects to music that is diametrically opposite; it’s like putting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the music of Proud Mary. The composer, who, by the way, coined the now-infamous term minimalism (actually in reference to another composer) never lacks for good tunes—in many cases really good tunes—yet reading the in-depth, complex, esoteric, and effusively hyperbolic notes one comes away with an idea that what is about to be heard is almost unlistenable, so thick and crusty is the intellectual pie that serves as subject matter for this opera.
In this case it is about, well, genetics, racism, and the attempt to control and dominate artistic freedom and license, among other things, some subtexts of the main theme. I can’t say if seeing this opera would help my understanding of it, but I doubt it. In fact, I would heartily recommend that anyone listening carefully read the libretto first; it won’t solve all the problems but you will at least have a general idea of what is happening in this linear work, where the people involved play different characters that span centuries and yet elucidate problems that have origins in time that only seem to develop and get worse. And to make it all worse, the music really has little, if anything, to do with the nature and tone of what is being sung; what this does dramatically or narratively I have no idea. Parts of it reminds me of Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies in the incongruous nature of text to music, while other parts are not too far removed in spirit from the circus band irreverence of Leonard Bernstein setting the Kyrie of the mass to march music. It’s the concept that throws us off, and maybe in the end that is the very key to understanding the ultimate paradox of Facing Goya—no matter how many “scenes” the protagonist moves through, neither time nor cultural situations ultimately prove fertile ground for concrete answers, and eventually will corrupt us all.
This protagonist comes in the form of an Art Banker who decides to find Goya’s skull (it was missing when his coffin was opened in Chartreuse in 1878) and then uses it as a sort of leitmotif for various political/social problems related to the basic idea of the dehumanization of man through four acts, each in succession progressively moving from the past to the future. It is really much too complicated to explain here, and without knowing the libretto I would have no idea what the overall message is, as only sporadically can you really hear the words, at least in terms of conveying such complex subjects that are so disparate.
In the end, as is so often the case, I am captivated by Nyman’s music, lusciously melodic and about as catchy as you can imagine. There are so many popular forms employed that I lost count, and its roots are thoroughly grounded in popular music, never overtly, but in the guise of musical segments that almost never repeat and constantly demand new creative treatment by the composer—and he rarely fails. As the opera progresses—and it is fairly long—I lost track of what was going on, and his serious message got lost in the unmitigated pleasure of listening to the marvelous music, even easily singable. For this reason alone I give the piece as many stars as I do. Nyman in future needs to calm down a bit and make his subject matter more easily digestible—then and only then will he really captivate an audience, which was one of the things that minimalism set about to do in the first place. That term should apply to the music and to the lyrics as well. Until then, the music will serve very nicely. Sound and performances are sterling.
A “…first choice for a gift to any lover of classical music”…