Two years ago, I thought opera was dead and, being a great lover of it, I invited you to celebrate with me a nostalgic funeral eulogy for the beautiful daughter of the Italian Renaissance. Saturday night, for the first time since I wrote that piece, I had the impression it has been resurrected.
The Bonfire of the Vanities, with music by Stefania de Kenessey and libretto by Michael Bergmann, premiered on 9-10 October at El Teatro at El Museo del Barrio here in New York City. The conductor, Daniela Candillari, is a woman, which itself is a rarity. The opera is an adaptation of the novel by Tom Wolfe, a drama of greed, sex, and racism taking place in 1980s New York but updated to 2008 or thereabouts.
The plot, which is centered around the vicissitudes of the bond trade, adultery, and a black boy who is hit and left to die on the street by a white man (or woman), contains all the elements of an all-too-timely devastating social critique: racial discrimination, Wall Street greed, sexual politics, and class exploitation. Can somebody still do an opera like that, in the same way in which Verdi did a few centuries ago? Until last Saturday, I thought that possibility was definitely gone. Now I have to reconsider my views.
The Bonfire of the Vanities achieves the impossible: it entertains you with its melodic lines, it even allures your senses, but in doing so, it makes you think. Reason and passions come together, for once, without being boring. Not even the happy ending, with its romantic reunion between the unfaithful husband and the self-sacrificing wife, will prevent you from exercising your critical faculties: no matter how much fun you had that evening, or perhaps exactly because of all the fun you did have that evening, you will exit the performance thinking: “and, yet, it sucks out there!”
How is this effect achieved? The music is extremely pleasant to your ear, its rhythm entertaining, and its fraseggio vivacious and delicate: yet, it does not drown the words, so it makes the libretto breathe, without suffocating it. Though verging on the virtuoso at some points, the music still does not get trapped in it: no matter how enchanted you are by the vibrato and the voice of Adrienne Danrich, you will understand the message of her central aria: “it’s worse when you are black!” And that word “black,” clearly yet beautifully transmitted by her voice, kept resonating in my mind, despite the music, or perhaps precisely because of the music, for hours. The Bonfire of the Vanities achieves the impossible and it does so in a particularly distinctive way.
For the whole performance, I was mesmerized and I kept thinking: what is this thing? I thought of Brecht’s and Weil’s The Three Penny Opera because it likewise makes you think while you are being entertained. But The Bonfire of the Vanities does not achieve this dual task through an estrangement effect, or through alternating songs and recitativo: quite the opposite. This opera succeeds by inviting you to identify with its characters and get lost in the beauty of its music. In this sense, it is much closer to, say, Verdi’s Traviata or Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yet, it is very different from both because De Kenessey’s music instills life into the words without concealing them.
So, ladies and gentlemen, let’s rejoice! Opera is back. Maybe what has come back is not exactly the same thing that went away. But who cares? This time, opera has brought with it a special companion, one who had accompanied her in the best moments of her life — social critique.