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Reexamining opera, one classic at a time / The Washington Post

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Rather than staging old operas over and over, why don't we write new versions? The question is often asked, but I've seldom seen it put into practice. An exception is David Lang's "Prisoner of the State," a retracing of Beethoven's ­"Fidelio," which had its world premiere at the New York Philharmonic earlier this month. Yes, the New York Philharmonic - because really innovative new opera, as I've said before, doesn't seem to happen often in actual opera houses. At least, not in American ones. "Prisoner of the State" is an evocative reimagining in which Beethoven's original lurks just below the surface, visible like a gravestone rubbing that has been worked into a new drawing. For some years, Lang has been fruitfully mining a distinctive vein of work: vocal-instrumental music that's both lyrical and ascetic, with instruments offsetting graceful, short vocal lines.

The New York Philharmonic that finished its season with "Prisoner of the State," however, is striving to be a different New York Philharmonic from the elitist ensemble that for many decades had done little to dispel critic-composer Virgil Thomson's statement, in 1940, that the orchestra "is not a part of New York's intellectual life." The American conductor Alan Gilbert, the orchestra's music director from 2009 to 2017, tried ­to shake things up with ­semi-stagings of operas (such as Ligeti's "Le grand macabre") and a new-music festival, but he didn't seem to get enough traction to effect the change he wanted. His successor, Jaap van ­Zweden, wasn't an obvious choice: The Dutch conductor had improved the Dallas Symphony but wasn't known for great charisma, people skills or particularly innovative programming.    PHOTO: (Chris Lee)

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