Picks and Pans Review: The Aspern Papers

updated 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/12/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PBS (Fri., June 9, 9 P.M. ET)

B+

When this two-act opera, based on Henry James's 1888 novella, premiered last November at the Dallas Opera, some critics found it unmoving. That may have been the case on a large stage, but on the intimate TV screen it packs a grand wallop.

American composer Dominick Argento, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, has made significant changes in James's story. The decaying palazzo in which the story takes place has been moved from Venice—the setting of Argento's last opera—to Lake Como, Italy. The change of locale works, even if it is a shame to lose the grandeur of Venice.

Inhabiting the palazzo in James's original story are Juliana Bordereau, the mistress of the long-dead poet Aspern, and her spinster niece. Thinking the old lady is hoarding an unpublished manuscript by her former lover, a literary editor poses as a lodger in order to wheedle it out of her.

Argento has cleverly transposed this story to his own world of music. Aspern is now a dead composer, and his mistress, Madame Bordereau, is a faded diva in possession of his last opera, which the world thinks he destroyed before committing suicide. The lodger is now a music scholar who idolizes Aspern. Unlike the book, the opera uses flashbacks to the time when Aspern and Juliana were lovers. The juxtapositions of time work beautifully, each one a cliff-hanger that propels the action. Even if Argento's lyrical score doesn't reach the heights one hopes for in opera, it remains exciting and suspenseful. Although the libretto is sung in English, subtitles are provided to make sure the meaning is clear. Mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Söderstrom, who proves divas can act, stars as Madame Bordereau. Playing her niece Miss Tina is Frederica von Stade, whose final scene onstage with Aspern's manuscript makes for great theater. Neil Rosenshein is Aspern, and Richard Stilwell is the lodger. Bravo.

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