Our survey of the recordings of Runnicles continues with the world premier, and possibly the sole, recording of Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk. For those not of San Francisco, the opera tells the story of the eponymous Milk, a City Supervisor and San Francisco's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated by one of his colleagues (this isn't really giving away the ending, in a circular piece of writing we get the assassination at the beginning).
The work is engaging from the guttural opening bars. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly for a work written so recently, an unashamedly modern piece. Listen expecting soaring arias and lyrical melodies and you will be disappointed. But fans of 20th Century music and opera should be right at home. The orchestration features an eclectic mix, particularly so far as the percussion is concerned. Wallace's score is highly atmospheric (after the opening prologue) as he vividly conjures first the auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera and then Central Park at midnight. He isn't always this successful though, and there are moments when the score seems to veer into musical comedy. The other problem with the first act is how much it jumps about: from the assassination to the Met, to Central Park, to 'Harvey's walk-in closet', to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, which lends something of a disjointed feeling. Almost as if there were too many ideas they couldn't bear to cut. The score surprises too - there are one or two sweepingly operatic moments. Addressing the quality of Runnicles' interpretation is harder. The work is new to me and I have no recording to contrast it with (if one even exists). But he does seem to bring out plenty of details and as ever is a fine accompanist, lending the right weight and support beneath his singers. And I think that to hold a score so bursting with ideas together can be regarded as no mean feat, this is especially true of the uprising that rounds off the first act. Indeed, listening, it made me wish I'd been able to hear his San Francisco production of Messiaen's St Francois (or, at the very least, that someone had had the sense to record it).
There are some strong performances including the Milk of Roberth Orth, his lover Scott (Bradley Williams) and Dan White (Raymond Very), Milk's eventual assassin. Again, in the second act, there is a vividness, as Milk makes his first, unsuccessful, run for office. The score ranges wide (and, impressively, this doesn't jar). The script is fine enough, although fairly crude in how it brings out the issues. Then again, this is perhaps another symptom of how much story they have decided to fold into two hours. Still, there are more beautiful librettos: Michael Korie is no W H Auden. The score remains impressive though - no more so than with a chorus of whistles andnd the contrasting political campaigns of Milk and White grate powerfully against one and other to bring the act's climax.
Only in the third act do I feel the work seriously falters. We now find ourselves watching Milk as a somewhat oily politician at City Hall. It isn't that it's bad per se, simply that the wonderful vividness that marked the first two acts seems to have vanished. (Anyone who things politics cannot be vivid needs only to listen to Il Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlos.) But the act picks up as it progresses. It makes Milk out to be a distinctly less than perfect, and in some ways rather unpleasant man: he first seems to go out of his way to be the swing vote overriding White's nimbyism and then, after White resigns in a fit of pique, as he threatens the mayor (in a distinctly Inquisitorial manner) to prevent him from allowing White to change his mind. The work's powerful climax sees first White's murder of the mayor followed by his assassination of Milk, the latter made the more chilling by being intercut with his tape recorded political will.
All in all, a fine and enjoyable new opera and one that would be more than interesting to see in the flesh.
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