ADAMS I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
John Adams’s third opera, I was looking at the Ceiling and then I saw the Sky, differs from its predecessors, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, in that it owes less to the rhetoric of lyric theatre than to rock opera and to the Broadway musical. What we have here is the show album. Songs are presented here without the ‘book’, the spoken dialogue that sets them up, and there is no evidence on this disc of Adams having composed any instrumental interludes or incidental music.
Although the booklet does little to clarify this, I would guess that the singers themselves come from a wide variety of backgrounds, spanning gospel and rock (Dewain and Leila), jazz (Tiffany) and ‘art’ musicals such as West Side Story (Consuelo, and particularly Mike, who might be seen as music theatre’s first gay Officer Krupke). The eclectic nature of the vocal writing reflects the design of June Jordan’s libretto, which uses personal conflict to symbolize racial tension in Los Angeles at the time of the 1994 earthquake.
What is never in doubt is John Adams’s technical ability to bridge different styles. Rock is in a sense America’s cultural mainstream but I am still amazed by his ability to write memorable melodies, particularly in the ensembles that frame the work and in ‘Dewain’s Song of Liberation and Surprise’. The result is, as in his recent clarinet concerto, Gnarly Buttons, a distinctively American fusion of art music and folk vernacular. My one concern from time to time is a lack of intensity below the opera’s glittering textures and melodic cliches. This impression is, unfortunately, exacerbated by the recording, whose wooden and insensitive production values do the music no favours at all.
The three keyboard instruments sound as if they have been recorded by direct feed into the mixing desk and too little effort has been made to give them the sense of acoustic ambience you would normally expect in a rock recording, something that becomes particularly embarrassing at the end of each song. Never has a rousing finale been so fatally undermined as in the final bar of the whole disc, resounding as it does here with all the elan of a damp dishcloth.
Even so, the opera deserves the benefit of the doubt. There are many fine performances here (with Angela Teek, Michael McElroy and Audra McDonald particularly outstanding) and there is so much strong music that I for one would like to see it live. It’s a shame that the booklet gives so little information on the background to the work and that the flat recorded sound lets the piece down so badly. However, if you are interested in modern opera, John Adams or even Steven Sondheim, I still recommend, given that there is no alternative version, that you hear this disc.