PASATIERI The Seagull · David Gilbert, cond; Raymond Ayers (Constantine); Amy Gough (Arkadina); Amy Shoremount (Nina); Matthew Worth (Trigorin); Keri Behan (Masha); Maxime Alvarez de Toledo (Sorin); Alvaro Vallejo (Doctor Dorn); Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater Ch & O · ALBANY TROY-579/580 (2 CDs: 1:47)
The career of Thomas Pasatieri has been an unusual and remarkable one-even more so today, as younger opera composers step all over each other in their efforts to come up with catchy subject matter and ingratiating musical approaches that will overcome the resistance of a skeptical and largely uninterested public. One of the last students of the American operatic master Vittorio Giannini, Pasatieri was born in New York City in 1945-making him just a couple of years older than John Adams. Pasatieri began his career as opera composer quite early and with remarkable facility. By the time he was 24, having earned the first doctorate in composition granted by the Juilliard School, he had already completed five operas, along with a few hundred songs. He came to widespread attention three years later when The Trial of Mary Lincoln was presented on national television. During the decade that followed, commissions appeared as fast as he could fulfill them, roughly at the rate of one per year. Shrewdly selecting familiar literature, filled with emotion, as subject matter, he set them to direct, passionate music in a post-Puccinian vein.
Most of Pasatieri’s operas were produced by the nation’s top regional companies, with well-known singers, who generally shunned contemporary music, in the leading roles. Singers loved Pasatieri’s melodious music, and audiences enjoyed it as well. But critics vilified it: Indeed, I have never encountered such vicious, abusive treatment of any other composer. Perhaps it was provoked by envy of the early age at which he achieved such success; perhaps it was the ease and facility with which he was able to turn out one opera after another; perhaps it was that he dared to defy the modernist dogma against writing lyrical, tonal, harmonically rich music; perhaps it was his personal manner-somewhat smug, capricious, and dismissive. Why not simply the shoddiness of his music? Because, while not without its flaws and weaknesses, it is pretty good stuff-dramatically compelling and musically effective, with a distinctive expressive language based on serpentine, highly chromatic, motivically-generated melodic lines in a free, conversational phraseology punctuated by idiosyncratic semi-cadences. After a couple of hearings, these lyrical lines can lodge themselves irresistibly in one’s consciousness, causing one to crave hearing them again and again.
Compared to many of today’s highly publicized operas, Pasatieri’s are masterpieces.
Then, at the age of 37, with seventeen operas to his credit, he stopped. His operas seemed no longer to be performed; indeed, many thought he had ceased composing altogether. There were rumors that he had moved to Hollywood. His name began to appear in the closing credits of many major American films: not as composer of the scores, but merely as orchestrator-generally considered to be uncreative hack-work. This was particularly curious because the most severe and widespread criticism of Pasatieri’s operas was directed toward their orchestration, which often sounded as if it were thrown together hastily, transcribed mechanically from a piano score. Closely-voiced harmony, seemingly at odds with the natural acoustic properties of the orchestra, sounded congested, exaggerating the stridency of dissonances. Thus it came as some surprise to find the rich orchestration of scores to such films as The Road to Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption, Scent of a Woman, Fried Green Tomatoes, et al. attributed to Pasatieri.
An illuminating interview, entitled “Whatever Happened to Thomas Pasatieri?,” can be found on Robert Wilder Blue’s website US Opera Web (www.usoperaweb.com/2002/december/pasatieri.htm). In it Pasatieri explains that after years of dealing with the unsympathetic critics, the constant traveling, and the financial uncertainty of life as an opera composer, he came to a decision. “I didn’t want to travel anymore and I wanted to work in a profession where I could earn money and be able to live and have benefits and pensions and things like that. The only place I could work in the music profession and accomplish that was in the film industry.” So in 1984 “I started to work in films and television doing orchestrations. And that is where I built the financial side of my life…. Now at age 57, it has enabled me to do with the rest of my life whatever I want without compromising a secure lifestyle…. Now I have the luxury of being able to write again, … without any of the ropes that would tie me up.” So what has he decided to do next? “I’m moving back to New York and returning to opera!”
It was with considerable interest that I attended last year’s revival by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater’s of Pasatieri’s ninth opera, The Seagull. This recording is taken from that production. First presented nearly 30 years ago by the Houston Grand Opera, with John Reardon, Patricia Wells, Frederica von Stade, and Evelyn Lear in the leading roles, The Seagull is identified by the composer as his favorite among his own operas. Pasatieri seems especially fond of Chekhov, having also composed an operatic adaptation of The Three Sisters five years later. The Russian playwright’s portraits of decadent bourgeois life, with its indulgence in petty vanities and rivalries, are well suited to both the opulence and the emotional volatility of Pasatieri’s musical style. But I must confess to finding Chekhov’s depictions of the foolish, boring lives of foolish, boring people rather tedious. Nevertheless, one’s standards for opera librettos are not as stringent as for pure drama, and I found unmitigated enjoyment in returning to this work. Kenward Elmslie’s text effectively retains the essential elements of the play. True, some of its sillier aspects are inevitably reflected in some silly music, and the first act is burdened by a lot of chatter. But things gradually take flight, most of the main characters-Constantine, Nina, Masha, Arkadina-are represented through memorable arias, and by the end one is sorry it is over. Pasatieri composed a couple of entr’actes for the new production, and they contribute nicely. The young cast assembled for this production is excellent for the most part, and the orchestra does a far better job than many ad hoc groups do with contemporary opera. In fact, the orchestration itself doesn’t sound so bad, either. The sound quality is fine: text is clearly audible and there is a minimum of stage noise.
Significantly, the critical response to this production was rather benign, relative to the sort of reaction elicited by the composer’s works in the past. Nevertheless, Anne Midgette’s begrudging comment in the New York Times (12/14/02) eloquently conveys the difficulty critics have in coming to terms with music like Pasatieri’s. After describing it as “a viable entertainment,” she adds, “‘The Seagull’ seems to be a solid work at the lower end of the artistic spectrum, like a piece of furniture from Ikea: secretly better than it’s supposed to be.”
Despite their many productions, Pasatieri’s operas have not turned up often on recording. As far as I know, only The Three Sisters has appeared previously, and that on a private LP issue released in 1987. Familiar with most of his operas, I cannot claim The Seagull as my favorite. That distinction I would divide between both Black Widow (1971) and Washington Square (1977). They would be my top choices for revival and recording.