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Trodding the Boards October 8, 2019

October 8, 2019 By Brian Sands

Gilded at the Marigny Opera House 

The Marigny Opera House fielded a full house for the recent world premiere of Gilded. That so many people would come out for a 45-minute song cycle on a Sunday evening following a Saints game was heartening indeed. 

With music by Tucker Fuller set to a text by Megan Levad, Gilded is inspired by the wandering lieder of the Romantic era and today’s free market/neoliberal sensibility. In its nine sections, using three voices, it tells of the tortured search for love by a successful, powerful man, perhaps a tech entrepreneur. He cruises. He hooks up. He’s cast aside. 

How noble to tell a story like this in such a classical form; Levad’s angsty, passionate text could just as easily have served as the basis for a glam rock extravaganza. And how interesting that Levad, a straight woman can, with only a few poetic overindulgences, so potently capture the emotional state of a gay man. 

Though its title clearly conjures up images of robber barons, Levad uses references subtle (e.g., a phrase evoking Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U) and not so subtle (“a disco ball”) to place this tale in our own era. If her hero exhibits a refined yearning, she bravely makes him not the nicest or most sympathetic of people, a man who’s not afraid to admit to self-hate and who evinces a scary, almost Trumpian ruthlessness in his business dealings. 

Fuller employs both an apt romanticism reminiscent of Beethoven and the astringencies of the Second Viennese School to convey the lovesick, tortured personality of the “Entrepreneur”. Fuller sets his music to Levad’s text well; there’s nothing arbitrary about the vocal line as it seems in some contemporary classical music. He gives us extended phrases of longing in a passage for viola and cello (“He Loved Him That Evening”), and switches from major to minor keys to bring out shifting moods. 

There are tumultuous passages with tremulous undertones as well as intriguing dissonances as Fuller tries to musically answer the question “What does a person who seemingly has everything really want?”

While thoroughly accomplished from the start, I felt it wasn’t until the two-thirds mark that the music truly probed the emotional depths of the text and its characters. In total, however, Fuller and Levad deliver a subliminally affecting portrayal that captures these sad and scary times in which we live.

Though Gilded could conceivably be done with three singers (a possibility that Levad acknowledged could occur in future performances), for the premiere all three voices were taken by Brenden Gunnell, for whom the piece was written. Looking like a Teutonic James Corden, this young American heldentenor sang with clear tone and precise diction. He confidently hit all of Fuller’s high notes with a piercing and, at times, anguished self-awareness. I would be curious to see him in a staged performance of Gilded with two other vocalists and how that might add to the work. 

The Polymnia Quartet (Benjamin Hart and Kate Withrow, violins; Amelia Clingman, viola; Philip Von Maltzahn, cello) played with their usual flawless expertise, bringing out all the colors of Fuller’s score. 

At a time when glbt characters are finally getting a bigger voice on recital and operatic stages (the trans-themed As One, which New Orleans Opera presented last year, has been one of the most produced works of recent vintage), Gilded deserves to have a long life. Whether it does or not, the Marigny Opera House and all others involved with this performance can be justifiably proud for introducing it to the world. 

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