After the interval came a welcome re-hearing of The Last Island (2009) by Peter Maxwell Davies. Taking inspiration from two islets bordering the Orkney island of Sanday, along with natural and man-made facets to be found there, it found the composer turning to the string sextet after an intensive involvement with the quartet medium. Its single movement alternates slow and fast sections with a formal intensification that leads to the climactic emergence of the 'Ave Maris Stella' plainchant often deployed by Davies, but seldom so atmospherically as here. In sustained emotional impact, indeed, this is as impressive as anything he has written over recent years.
Rumors were that an “Occupy”-something group would disrupt Wednesday night’s US premiere of “Kommilitonen!” But the Juilliard Opera performance went off without offstage fireworks, and proved to be a well-crafted and moving meditation on student activism... A post-performance protest outside the theater suggested the 20 or so “Occupy Opera” demonstrators had at least done their homework: Among the slogans they chanted was a line from this opera’s rousing finale, “There is no quota on freedom!”
"Kommilitonen!" is an earnest and engaging creation, an agitprop pageant that proves surprisingly entertaining. Moreover, the Juilliard Opera singers and orchestra, led by conductor Anne Manson, performed it with an enthusiasm and polish that had the 77-year-old composer beaming when he came out for his curtain call. Davies' lifetime of experience writing large-scale compositions shows in his expert use of the orchestra. The rhythmically varied, basically tonal score is filled with snatches of melody that hint at Chinese marches, American spirituals and German lieder ' tunes that often melt into one another. In a compelling moment during the interrogation of the Chinese parents, a relentlessly upbeat chorus for the Red Guard plays against a string lament for the hapless victims.
With timid tonality pervading so many new operas, it was refreshing to hear the edgy, acerbic sounds of Peter Maxwell Davies's "Kommilitonen!" presented by the Juilliard School last week. Mr. Maxwell Davies and librettist David Pountney, who also directed, used that agitated quality and a range of musical styles to deftly weave together three tales of student political action.
Mr. Pountney's kaleidoscopic libretto and Mr. Davies's music vary the dramatic treatment of these stories, giving each a distinctive profile and keeping the show moving as it switches among them.
There are many impressive things about “Kommilitonen!,” the new opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, with a libretto by David Pountney, which had its American premiere at the Juilliard School on Wednesday night. Best of all is Mr. Davies’s exhilarating score. Here, for once, is a modern opera that exudes musical modernism. Mr. Davies was a major figure in the European avant-garde. Over the years he may have softened the hard edges of his modernist language. But at 77 he still writes bracingly gritty and complex music. In his many dramatic works and unconventional operas, Mr. Davies has excelled at putting contemporary-music techniques to arresting theatrical purposes.
More than a decade after saying he had written his final theatre piece, the chance to compose a work for and about students has lured Peter Maxwell Davies back to opera.
Pountney also directs the immaculate RAM staging, [which] commutes effortlessly between the narratives, Davies's music delineating each strand with remarkable clarity. His score is extraordinarily fluent: the vocal lines are perfectly judged and the instrumental writing full of wonderful touches, with marching band, jazz trio, solo harp and erhu players on stage. It is as good as any theatre score he has ever composed.
The music works with exemplary theatrical skill; Maxwell Davies has coloured his score with snatches of American roots music, German art song and brassy Chinese marches without ever losing sight of the opera’s unifying goal. Here is proof that Maxwell Davies, who says he never intended to write another opera, still had a serious success inside him.
A master symphonist. It was a triumph: an extraordinary testament to the fact that, at the age of 76, his creativity is radiantly alive but more judicious than it was when he was half this age.
Kommilitonen! is an ensemble piece that prioritises collective singing – which from start to finish was magnificent. But the evening’s real star was Maxwell Davies, whose music gave these young performers something genuinely worthwhile to work with. It found distinctive style and colour for the separate stories, with convincing Weimar Republic expressionism for the White Rose episodes, and robust parodies of Maoist jingles for the Chinese ones. But it also had a heart and soul, touching profoundly spiritual depths in its recourse to scriptural quotations.
If you're looking for a glorious, heart-warming pageant of humanity, [Maxwell Davies’s] latest opera will do nicely. Maxwell Davies flits between sound worlds. Chinoiserie, German modernism and wonky Porgy and Bess succeed and bleed into each other. What emerges is a prolonged paean to Freedom, finding its most obvious form in a rousing hymn at the close.
More tender moments amaze: luminescent strings make a recipe for graffiti paint into a ray of hope; a celeste turns a hand-operated press into a Mozartean music box, and the entire German people stand transfixed by its magical leaflets.
It's a bold and beautiful assertion of the transformative power of truth.
The score works strikingly well. Kommilitonen! visits Juilliard School, New York, its co-commissioner, in November, but I’m sure that won’t be the end of this stirring blast of an opera.