Review: ‘Stranger Love’ Reflects the L.A. Philharmonic at Its Finest (2023)


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The premiere of Dylan Mattingly and Thomas Bartscherer’s six-hour opera was presented by the orchestra — an institution at an inflection point.

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Review: ‘Stranger Love’ Reflects the L.A. Philharmonic at Its Finest (1)

Stranger Love
NYT Critic's Pick

The composer Dylan Mattingly’s cheeks turned red, and he held a hand up to his eyes, as he began to cry late Saturday night during the bows for the world premiere of his opera “Stranger Love.”

It was an understandably emotional moment. “Stranger Love,” created with Thomas Bartscherer, had been in development for over a decade and performed piecemeal, but was now being presented in its entirety at Walt Disney Concert Hall, by the perhaps the only orchestra that could do it: the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

That’s because “Stranger Love” is a six-hour, durational opera, an earnest exercise in deep feeling that takes sensations and stretches them from the personal to the cosmic, and goes big in a time when contemporary music tends to go small. It requires the kind of pipe-dream planning that many institutions shy away from, but that has been characteristic of the Philharmonic.

Characteristicin large part thanks to the work of Chad Smith, the orchestra’s chief executive and one of itslongtime administrators, who said last week that he would leave Los Angeles for the Boston Symphony Orchestra this fall. That news followed another recent blow: the announcement that the Philharmonic’s superstar maestro, Gustavo Dudamel, would depart for New York in 2026.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic is now at an inflection point. At stake is the preservation of an ethos that has made this orchestra the kind that can throw its ambition, and deep pockets, into projects like John Cage’s outrageous “Europeras” at Sony Studios; regular commissions at the length of symphonies and full evenings; and “Stranger Love,” whose first act alone is as long as Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (also programmed there this season), but which doesn’t have a fraction of its marketability.

So, as Mattingly cried onstage, his triumph felt bittersweet, with a tinge of fear about the Philharmonic’s next phase. “Omnia mutantur,” someonesays in the opera, nodding to Ovid: Everything changes. Yet it’s also natural to want more from the Smith-Dudamel era — to “tarry a while” and “linger in this moment,” to pull another line from the show.

No matter what happens, “Stranger Love” deserves life beyond its one-night-only run at Disney Hall, which was hosted by the Philharmonic and performed by Mattingly’s ensemble, Contemporaneous. The most natural fit in New York, where epically avant-garde opera has all but vanished from earlier bastions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, would be the Park Avenue Armory, the city’s most generous promoter of large-scale work.

If anything, the Armory would be a more appropriate space than Disney Hall, its vastness able to accommodate Mattingly’s musical and emotional sprawl — the way his score does nothing but linger, luxuriating in the good and the bad, the spiritual and the doubtful, and above all the ecstatic.


Like most works of extreme ambition and magnitude, “Stranger Love” isn’t perfect. When it name-checks the likes of Anne Carson and Octavio Paz, it behaves more like creative nonfiction than opera and yanks its audience from an experience of pure feeling. Some stretches of the score are more trying than transporting, and the second act seems destined to torment any director.

That 80-minute act — in which singers exist more as instrumentalists than traditional characters — certainly appears to have stumped Lileana Blain-Cruz, an imaginative, effective director who wasn’t in full control of the material here, or much of elsewhere. There were references, in her modest staging, to the work’s lineage of opera and durational art. In Matt Saunders’s scenic design, a tall backdrop (made of threads that formed a canvas for Hanna Wasileski’s projections) was at one point illuminated with Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s celestial, forced-perspective set for “The Magic Flute.” As if playing off an “Einstein on the Beach” reference in the line “These are the days my friends,” Blain-Cruz has two people carry and sit in chairs that could have been used in Robert Wilson’s original “Einstein” production.

That’s far from the only tip of the hat in “Stranger Love,” but it may be the most explicit. Mattingly has internalized a wealth of musical styles: the gamelan-influenced, West Coast sounds of Lou Harrison; the propulsive cadences of John Adams; the vocal technique and poetic dramaturgy of Meredith Monk. Three female voices — Holly Sedillos, Catherine Brookman and Eliza Bagg, often employing woodwind-like vocalise — could have been pulled from a Minimalist ensemble.

But Mattingly doesn’t quote. Instead, his influences surface subtly, abstracted in, say, a rhythmic gesture. In the end, the language is entirely his own. Although his score often instructs singers to “sound as beautiful as possible,” his writing calls for the directness of pop rather than an operatic color. His 28-piece orchestra includes restless percussion and three pianos: one with standard tuning, one roughly half a tone lower, the other in between. The microtonal effect, in Mattingly’s polyrhythms, can be that of a gently melodic choir of wind chimes.


In each scene, Mattingly prolongs a musical idea with mantra-like focus, relishing and delicately transforming it. Bartscherer’s poetic and slim story follows a couple, Tasha and Andre, through the seasons, a vague timeline guided more by mood than chronology: fresh, promising spring; pleasantly lethargic summer; suddenly shifting autumn; suffocatingly glacial winter. This general arc is narrated by Uriel — a charismatic Julyana Soelistyo, whose otherworldliness is emphasized in Kaye Voyce’s costume design — and accompanied by two allegorical figures, Threat from Without (temptation) and Threat from Within (doubt).

David Bloom conducted Mattingly’s pitfall-ridden score with a sure hand. Occasionally, his hips betrayed an urge to groove, but even then he remained unflappably precise. As Andre, the tenor Isaiah Robinson had a bright purity that served the score with an egolessinstrumentaltimbresimilar to the soprano Molly Netter’s Tasha. As the Threat from Without, Jane Sheldon sang with birdlike leaps redolent of Monk’s “Atlas”; Luc Kleiner, as the Threat from Within, was gloomier and darkly seductive.

Blain-Cruz’s production featured six dancers, who during the first act are made to behave with unpredictably fast and slow stylized movement that snaps into focus only when Tasha and Andre spot each other and sustain eye contact from across the stage. But in the second act, the dancers merely retell the lovers’ story through Chris Emile’s tiresomely obvious choreography.

Most impressive were the members of Contemporaneous, which Mattingly founded with Bloom while students at Bard College. These are players well versed in Mattingly’s idiom, and well suited to take on such an immense, difficult score for one night: exact and detailed, but also lively and openly dancing, as full of personality as any singer.

They are the stars of the purely instrumental third act, repeating versions of earworm phrases for about 20 minutes. As the score ritualistically stretches a kind of communal love to the cosmos, one melody begins to spread out as well, until, in the final seconds, it unfurls slowly, ending before it reaches its last note.

And why should it? When something is this special, you can’t help but want totarry a while and linger in the moment.

Stranger Love

Performed on Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.

Joshua Barone is the assistant classical music and dance editor on the CultureDesk and a contributing classical music critic.

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