Klaus-Dieter Lerche (as Columbus); Bruckner Orchester Linz, conducted Dennis Russell Davies
Arguably one of the most anticipated premieres of the previous decade was Philip Glass’s commission from the Metropolitan Opera to write an opera marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. After all, the staging of Einstein on the Beach at the Met, though not a Met production, put Glass on the world stage. So, at the time, everyone wondered what an actual Met production for Glass would be. Might this have been the work that would finally have made Glass’s trademark minimalist style an endorsed historical inevitability in the canon of Western classical music by the mainstream classical music establishment?
This, of course, didn’t quite happen. The Voyage received mixed reviews and soon faded in the public consciousness. I, too, remembered being disappointed, thinking the work was pretentious, bloated, and a knock-off of earlier, much more interesting music that Glass had previously written. But, after such a set up, how could anyone have heard it any other way?
Now, nearly 15 years later, as a result of this music finally being released on CD, we can hear The Voyage with fresh and hopefully untainted ears. And doing so makes for some revelatory listening. On the recording, The Voyage comes across as exciting, harmonically adventurous, and completely at home with the operatic idiom in ways that Glass’s earlier revolutionary stage works had not been since they were still the work of a maverick outsider. Glass, now the insider, here shows full mastery of orchestration and acute sensitivity to operatic voices. Listen to the gorgeous aria that Columbus sings at the opening of Act Two, Scene Two, during his historic voyage in 1492. For me, it feels like the sequel of the “Hymn to the Sun” aria in Glass’s 1983 opera Akhnaten, and which, like that earlier aria, is positioned as the centerpiece of the entire work.
So why such a different reaction? For starters, the layers of hype and inevitable critical barbs that surround such auspicious premieres are now just historical footnotes that no longer can intrude upon the listening experience. But, perhaps more importantly, Dennis Russell Davies and the soloists of the Landestheater and Bruckner Orchester, both of the Austrian city of Linz, convincingly deliver this music in a way that the Met just didn’t. Hopefully the new regime at the Met will hear this recording and gain inspiration from it. New opera deserves this kind of advocacy.