Any list of truly distinguished Washington novels will be short, and necessarily subject to the whim and fancy of the compiler. But there is one work that will reappear again and again in any such roster, with the inevitability of the free spot on a bingo board, and that is "Democracy," by the legendary historian, aesthetician, autobiographer and all-around grouch Henry Adams. Published anonymously in 1879, "Democracy" is a joy -- a worldly, profoundly knowing (and thus profoundly disenchanted), deliciously elitist social comedy that unfolds amid the squalor and corruption of the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.
Now "Democracy" has joined an even more select company, as one of the minuscule number of operas set in the nation's capital. The Washington National Opera, which commissioned "Democracy: An American Comedy" from composer Scott Wheeler and playwright Romulus Linney, presented the world premiere on Friday night at Lisner Auditorium to a house full of politicians, justices, lobbyists and plain old Washingtonians who may have had cause to reflect that the rules of engagement have not changed an awful lot in 125 years.
Tenor Robert Baker was perfectly cast as Baron Jacobi, the narrator.
(C. Karin Cooper)
This is a tale of puffed-up, would-be heroes and cynical, hedonistic rogues, and Adams, Wheeler and Linney leave no doubt with whom their sympathies lie. President Grant is introduced as a former alcoholic and failed businessman ("seven years later, he's the president of the United States," a character marvels). The crooked Sen. Raitcliffe makes his reputation by promising "reform," a word he uses with the same slippery promiscuity too often accorded "freedom" in 2005. The oleaginous Rev. Hazard is given to cockeyed optimism and fluttering, meaningless platitudes about the afterlife. Raitcliffe and Hazard both make presents of their collected speeches and sermons to the women they are wooing -- the wealthy New York widow Madeleine Lee and the youthful Bohemian individualist Esther Dudley -- and one fears for a time that these eminently capable women are actually going to succumb to the blandishments of these self-regarding, 19th-century Li'l Abners.
That they do not is in large part due to a coterie of advanced, proudly unsentimental characters, whose ghosts may still be found in the salons of Georgetown and Dupont Circle. There is the brilliant Lydia Dudley, a permanent Washingtonian who (historical chronology be hanged) cannot help but call to mind the late Alice Roosevelt Longworth, with her celebrated mixture of malice and empathy, her keen interest in the fritter of political posturing. And then there is the opera's narrator, Baron Jacobi, the Bulgarian minister, who watches the spectacle, sees through everybody and everything, makes his pile, loses his job and, triumphantly, heads home.
Wheeler's score is a fine one, although stronger by far in Act 1 than in Act 2, which has rather too much of the clotted, snap-crackle-pop, percussive busyness that so often mars the work of Elliott Carter and his disciples. If I generally find Wheeler's music more often clever than funny, there remain long, inspired passages of radiance (especially the finale to Act 1, which is beautifully balanced, musically and dramatically, and sends the spectator out to intermission glowing). Best of all, he writes skillfully and idiomatically for the human voice -- even in the opera's most strenuously modernist moments, Wheeler never asks his singers to leap around the staff like so many mountain goats negotiating impossible terrain -- and his orchestration is inevitably supple, colorful and assured. This is Wheeler's first full-length opera: I hope there will be many more.
When it was announced that the cast would be made up mostly of members of the Washington National Opera's young artist program, it seemed something of a cop-out, and one wondered why the troupe's first commissioned opera in a decade wasn't being entrusted to established professionals. As it happened, this was an altogether inspired decision: Across the board, the youthful players brought immaculately polished singing and acting to their characterizations, and threw in an enthusiasm and rooted, palpable sense of family that inevitably disappears as people get famous and fees go up. These splendid young artists have been struggling with "Democracy" for two years, through workshops and rehearsals, and they have reached a point where they all seem to inhabit the same loopy world. I'll bet the cast party was a lot of fun, shot through with pride and fulfillment.
Anne Manson coaxed a marvelously detailed and fluent performance from the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the George Washington University Chamber Choir: She was the sure axis around which everyone, onstage and off, revolved. Amanda Squitieri made a fierce, sweet, delightfully feisty Esther Dudley, while Keri Alkema brought tonal opulence and a heartfelt, wounded dignity to the role of Madeleine Lee. Jessica Swink chirped amusingly and stratospherically as the scatterbrained Essy Baker. Lee Poulis captured the starchy, spurious "dignity" of Sen. Raitcliffe while Matthew Wolff managed to inspire human sympathy for the slithering, crooning Rev. Hazard. Christina Martos was a suitably grand, suitably off-in-the-background first lady to President Grant.
Three older singers, all Washington National Opera regulars, rounded out the cast. William Parcher huffed and puffed appropriately as Grant (although he looked rather like an even more sullied political figure from the era, William Marcy "Boss" Tweed). Kyle Engler was a delightfully imperious Lydia Dudley, who suffers fools (and foolishness) not at all; she carried herself with the half-amused, half-shocked sensibility of somebody who is always the wisest person in any room. Finally, Robert Baker -- with 250 or more WNO appearances behind him -- finally got a leading role as Baron Jacobi, and did he ever run with it! He combined brassy, foppish grandiloquence with welling, understated tenderness: his distinctive, clarion high tenor voice occasionally called the late Peter Pears to mind. It is impossible to imagine the role better cast.
Director and designer John Pascoe came through with the best work I've seen from him -- he kept the multiple layers of dramatic action in "Democracy" both separate and intertwined, and provided stately, handsome vistas before which they could unfold. He would seem to be a student of Adams's biography; in the background of the funeral scene in Act 1, an extra assumed the noble, affectless profile of the ambiguous figure, designed by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, that now serves as the monument for Henry and Marion "Clover" Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery. (The character Esther, a photographer, is shown grieving for her father; the real-life Clover was so distraught by the death of her father that she drank photographic chemicals and killed herself.)
My principal complaint about this production of "Democracy" is that Washingtonians have too little time in which to see it, for there will be only one more performance, this afternoon at 2. With the exception of a single scene in "The Ballad of Baby Doe" by Douglas Moore and John Latouche (which takes place at the Willard Hotel!) our town has never been so deftly captured in an opera. While I'm sure "Democracy" will be back sometime (and, alas, will be probably just as relevant as it is now), those who want to experience some home-grown cultural history first-hand should find their way to Lisner Auditorium, and quickly.