Arjuna's Dilemma: opera reviews

Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Tony Boutté as the title character in Douglas J. Cuomo’s new opera “Arjuna’s Dilemma,” which is having its premiere in Brooklyn.

The modern landscape of music is filled with composers looking for new things. We've stepped squentially beyond the atonal world of Schoenberg, meditated our way through minimalism and been thoroughly confused with new complexity. Composers from Debussy on have looked toward other cultures to bring new ideas to music. Tan Dun's The First Emperor brings his Chinese heritage along with his education in European music to further blur the music landscape, while composers like Damon Albarn (Monkey King: Journey to the West) and Stewart Wallace (Bonesetter's Daughter) explore music in opera from the other side. Bollywood is encroaching into mainstream film world and now Douglas Cuomo, the composer of the jazzy Sex-in-the-City theme, has come up with a new opera which blends the Indian and Western music (particularly jazz), Arjuna's Dilemma, based on Bhagavad Gita.

As previously reviewed, I liked the music, but that was just listening to snippets from bits available on the net. Now that it's open it seems the general sentiment is warm if not overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Anthony Tommasini, from the New York Times, feels "The score boldly blends those Indian sources with diverse contemporary music idioms and hints of jazz. There is a risk in drawing from disparate musical styles, and stretches of the piece fall into a stylistic nowhere land. Still, Mr. Cuomo’s enthusiasm for the music that inspired him is so palpable that the score’s flat spots hardly matter." Further on in his review Mr Tommasini comments, "There are touches of Philip Glass in the choral writing, especially when the women latch onto a phrase and repeat words obsessively. I liked the score best when Mr. Cuomo pushed the complexity to extremes, piling up Arjuna’s solos, choral counterpoint and instrumental textures to create haunting, astringent, multilayered music, with cluster chords in the electric keyboard and spiraling flights in the strings and winds."

Justin Davidson of New York Magazine was not as enthusiastic saying "The result... is a pile of half-realized good ideas. The god Krishna takes many forms, and Cuomo multiplies his voice into a farrago of manifestations: Indian singing by the marvelous Humayun Khan, a five-woman choir, the screechy falsetto and silent writhing of performance artist John Kelly, the muscular filigree of Bob Franceschini’s tenor sax, and the eloquent drumming of tabla player Badal Roy. Each gets a crack at persuading the hesitant Arjuna to go into battle, and each is separately compelling, but the stilted sequence of solos has the feel of a cross-cultural variety show."

While the reviewers don't necessarily agree in the success of the music, the audience seemed to enjoy it, "the audience that gave an ardent ovation on Wednesday" when Mr Tommasini saw the performance. Perhaps the most surprising is the lack of other reviews for a noted composer and a new work premiering in New York. Maybe it's not the met, but only a half dozen composers (Tan Dun is among them) get their first operas premiered at that level. Still, it's a good piece and worthy of recognition. The Fly and Repo: the Genetic Opera are getting far more press and their music isn't nearly as good.


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