By Rebecca Schmid
BERLIN – With its colorful polystylism and intrinsic theatricality, the music of Andrew Norman lends itself naturally to opera. As composer of A Trip to the Moon, commissioned for educational purposes but billed as “an opera for people of all ages,” he rises skillfully to the challenge of writing for a mix of professional and amateur musicians, all the while imparting the values of tolerance toward a foreign society (in this case, the inhabitants of the moon). But as seen at the first performance at the Philharmonie here on June 17, the format including some 100 amateur singers is in some ways limiting, at least from the perspective of an adult listener.
The stage work – a co-commission of the Berlin Philharmonic for its “Vocal Heroes” choirs (a community outreach project), the London Symphony Orchestra Discovery and Community Choirs, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, together with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus – stands in a tradition of the didactic play (Lehrstück), a genre that regained importance in early 20th-century Berlin through collaborations of Bertolt Brecht with Weill, Hindemith, and Eisler. Weill’s Der Jasager premiered, for example, with students from the Staats-Akademie für Kirchen- und Schulmusik and other local schools in 1930. The principal aim of the Lehrstück was to educate the participants, not entertain the audience.
Norman’s A Trip to the Moon – based loosely on the 1902 film of the same title that is considered the first of the science fiction genre – uses the confrontation of a group of astronomers with the inhabitants of the moon as an allegory for overcoming fear of the “other.” While the moon people communicate by singing vowels, the earthlings – with the exception of the lead character, Georges Méliès (named after the filmmaker) – only use speech. The juxtaposition provides Norman, who fashioned his own libretto, with a wide range that allows him to involve participants of different abilities and ages. In gatherings of the moon people, some sing purely tonal melodies on repeated vowel sequences in unison with the orchestra; others harmonize in a quartet; and yet others produce pitchless, rhythmic effects.
The moon people are also armed with boomwhackers (tuned percussion tubes), which serve both a musical and theatrical purpose, producing tones in synchrony with the orchestra but also serving as tools for the astronomers to repair their damaged rocket and return to Earth. The astronomers hand over their umbrellas, which turn out to be useful weapons against a monster that kidnaps one of the moon children. Norman reserves his most dissonant, avant-garde material to illustrate the monster, while the world of the moon people is for the most part lusciously tonal. The prologue evokes a vast, distinctly West Coast space with ethereal, floating textures, minimalist patterns, and resounding brass, only to create an entirely new soundscape with the entrance of the first moon person, Eoa, who is assigned the sparse accompaniment of bass clarinet, trumpet, piano, and percussion — textures so ethereal that they had trouble competing with the sounds of a few restless children.
But choruses for the gaggles of moon people dominate much of the opera, which lasted 70 minutes in this performance, at times relegating Norman’s powers of instrumentation to the background. The work as a whole does not have as powerful an identity as the Grawemeyer-winning orchestral work Play, which zooms in and out of scrupulously scored material with kinetic energy, or the piano concerto Suspend, which wallows in slow-moving, dreamy textures. As is the nature of the commission, Norman tailors each scene to the forces at hand, creating what might be called a piece of Gebrauchsmusik (music for use) in which the moral to be told, and the people involved to relay that message, are elevated above a complex artistic statement. For all its imaginative effects – the thunder tubes that create a spacey atmosphere over pizzicato strings, the characteristically strategic use of percussive instruments such as xylophone and temple blocks – the work leaves an aftertaste of cliché.
This is in part due to the ending of this premiere staging directed by Ela Baumann. The entire scenario turns out to be a dream of Georges, who wakes up on a beanbag downstage. Eoa is suddenly a mortal, sweeping the floor while singing “Ich, Du, Wir” (I, you, us). The bare-bones production, which consists at times of an empty white stage (leaving room for the choruses), is a disappointment with the exception of space-age costumes by Christophe Linéré and colored lighting (the program book does not credit a designer) to bring them into relief. There is virtually no choreography to accompany rhythmically charged passages, leaving some choruses to resemble warm-up exercises, but the coordination of choir director Simon Halsey never ceases to impress.
The lead singers, meanwhile, give charismatic performances. Tenor Peter Tantsits brings excellent dramatic timing and a warm, expansive voice to the role of Georges, and soprano Sophia Burgos a silvery timbre and otherworldly gait to Eoa. Mezzo-soprano Iwona Sobotka is commanding as the Moon Queen, riding serenely above the choruses. Simon Rattle leads members of the Philharmonic, its orchestra academy, players of the Hanns Eisler Conservatory, and school-age students in a carefully rehearsed performance, though there are a few balance issues when the soloists are standing too far upstage.
A Trip to the Moon arrives at the Barbican Centre in London on July 9 and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 2-3, 2018 for performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and LA Philharmonic, respectively.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.