Nørgård’s “Siddharta” a Pretty Heady Opera

Siddharta 59 front

NØRGÅRD: Siddharta; For a Change: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra / Stig Fogh Andersen, tenor (Siddharta); Aage Haugland, bass (Suddhodana); Anne Frellesvig, soprano (Kamala); Birgitte Frieboe, alto (Tara); Edith Guillaume, mezzo-soprano (Prajapati); Erik Harbo, tenor (Asita); Kim Janken, tenor (1st Counselor); Christian Christansen, bass (2nd Counselor); Poul Elming, tenor (Messenger); Tina Kiberg, soprano (Yasodhara); Minna Nyhus, alto (Gandarva); Gert Mortensen, percussion (in Concerto); Danish National Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra; Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor / Dacapo 8.224031-32

Sometimes you just never know what kind of treasures you’ll discover if you poke around long enough. Having been deeply impressed by Neeme Järvi’s recording of Carl Nielsen’s Saul and David (see my assessment in The Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide), I was seeking other recordings by the wonderful soprano on that recording, Tina Kiberg, when I ran across this opera. I was startled to discover that the work dated from the late 1970s and the recording from the 1980s, since I had never heard of either before, but after just 10 minutes of listening I knew I had struck gold. Siddharta was, and is, a masterpiece.

But just who was this wonderful composer I had never runacross before? As it turns out, Per Nørgård is a Danish composer who enjoyed some notable exposure from the late 1960s through the early ‘80s, particularly for his operas Gilgamesh, Siddharta and Det Guddommelige Tivoli, but somehow or other his fame became elusive in the West. This was probably due to the dual factors of his own music’s difficulty and the rise, and popularity, of the much easier-to-assimilate style of minimalism. You can go to the Met and hear minimalist operas there to this very day, particularly that miserable specimen Nixon in China, but Siddharta remains to be staged there, and you know how it is with operagoers. If it hasn’t been seen or heard, it doesn’t exist.

All of which is a shame because, as I say, this is one of the most fascinating and well-conceived modern operas in my experience. It turns out that Nørgård bases much of his music on number sequences, particularly the infinity series for serializing melody, harmony, and rhythm in musical composition. The method takes its name from the endlessly self-similar nature of the resulting musical material, comparable to fractal geometry. Sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? Well, when one listens to the actual music thus produced it turns out to be relatively tonal and melodic, albeit using complex rhythms and melodic “cells” that are repeated later in the work with a different rhythm and/or different orchestration, thus producing an entirely different effect. Broken down to layman’s terns, what I heard was music that was exotic in nature and style in which Nørgård combines vocal and instrumental timbres—particularly the choral voices—in such a way as to produce a “shimmering” sound over which he lays the solo vocal lines.

The effect, then, is not forbidding or off-putting, like Peter Maxwell Davies’ early vocal works, but rather quite attractive if not necessarily easy to digest. WIthin his sound-world, Nørgård creates a complex and sometimes polyphonic web using a sparse and very colorful orchestration leaning heavily on percussion and high strings. Despite the fact that Siddharta has no arias, the vocal line is not really too difficult for the ear to follow so long as one is not trying to follow or sing along with it. La Bohème it certainly is not, but it’s not nearly as dense or complex as Berg’s Lulu, which has certainly become a repertoire staple.

And perhaps another reason for its neglect is it subject. An opera on the early life and raising of Prince Siddharta, who later became the Buddha, isn’t exactly what Americans consider entertainment. They would much rather be titillated by Richard Nixon singing in a high tenor voice or homosexual cowboys on Brokeback Mountain; that, to them, is real entertainment. The story of a young man’s awakening and spiritual journey? Wow, that’s too existential, man. It wouldn’t even make an epic movie.

But if you are open to new experiences, Siddharta will seduce you and hold your interest throughout its 90-minute length. Maybe the unusual length is another reason many opera houses won’t perform it…that, plus the fact that it’s sung in Danish, although there are also versions available now in German and English. As for me, I couldn’t stop listening once I started; I just had to hear the entire opera, and I was as spellbound as if I were in a trance-state. As Nørgård himself put it in the liner notes:

What I express as desirable is a combination of the “familiar and safe” — and the “unfamiliar and titillating”. The sparse use in the first act of a technique involving a change of accentuation almost becomes an orgy of transformation music in the second act, where theme after theme, orchestral passage after orchestral passage, is revealed on closer hearing (or reading)being identical with earlier passages or themes. A “new metric structure” is solely responsible for this illusion of musical change! For example, the ambiguity of the “Ball-music” in opening of the second act is immediate manifested in the two main themes underlying the dance in youth’s ‘eternal’ noon. One of them is merry — festive — square cut, while the other is restless – elegant – scudding. But the notes of the two passages are identical; the change is hidden in a ´new metric structure´.

The solo vocal lines, once started, continue with the pace of a natural conversation, interspersed with instrumental and choral passages. One must follow the libretto (included with the recording) fairly closely in order to get the maximum interest out of the music, although Nørgård does a good job of setting the mood and character of each scene. It also doesn’t hurt that every single solo singer has a fine voice and fits their characters perfectly.

Because of the opera’s relative brevity, the second CD is filled in with Nørgård’s percussion concerto, For a Change. This, too, follows his mathematical principles of composition and is also a fascinating piece, in an entirely different style. Although the percussion dominates and its sometimes quite loud, it is never entirely so. There are surprisingly long moments of quietude and, in one section, the music almost swings with a jazz rhythm.

The opera’s libretto starts with Siddharta’s father Suddhodana planning to raise his son in an artificial atmosphere of only love and joy, not allowing him to see or comprehend sickness, disability or death, and ends with his “awakening,” the realization that what he has been experiencing is a lie. To a certain extent, this can also be seen as a metaphor for the young and spoiled college students of modern America, raised in a cocoon where they are so protected from not sickness and death but the least little insult, taught that murdering terrorists are just nice people who haven’t had enough hugs or balloons and that having millions of people overrun our country bringing drugs and disease is a good thing. Sooner or later their moment of awakening will come, too, but when it occurs will they become enlightened, rip the veil from their eyes and see the world as it really is? Siddharta’s companions knew that there was really disability, illness and death; they were just trained to hide them from him. Today’s lied-to children remain children forever, playing Pokemon Go as grown adults, because they’ve been raised in a co-dependent atmosphere where they reinforce each others’ insular and distorted view of the world.

And maybe, just maybe, this is another reason why Siddharta wouldn’t sell in America. Too many of those who went to see it would probably sympathize with Suddhodana and feel badly that Siddharta learned the truth. Who knows? As the late Jon Vickers used to say, “Great art asks questions, but it doesn’t provide answers.” Siddharta is indeed a great work of art, and I strongly urge you to hear it for yourself.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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