Arden’s Opus

All Together, Now

      If there is anything close to utopia on this earth, it must be a classical string quartet. Four human beings, wedded by their art, devoted to recreating music so beautiful that the heavens themselves must envy it, who nightly for 60 to 90 minutes join as one, rising on the tide of golden sound. Can any life be better than that?

      If there is any genuine hell on earth, it must surely be that same quartet. Four individuals yoked to each other for the duration, shuttling from one faceless city, one drafty hall to another, their enforced professional intimacy all but precluding a personal life, quarreling over every mordent and ritard, and perhaps, like mismatched lovers, never getting it quite right.

      Playwright Michael Hollinger, himself a trained violist, understands both sides of the coin, and in his newest work, Opus, currently playing at the Arden Theater, he takes us backstage with the Lazzara Quartet, a group with more troubles than most. We meet it at the sensitive moment of replacing Dorian (David Whalen), its gifted but erratic violist. Only later do we realize that Elliot (Patrick McNulty), the group’s first violinist and leader, is using (or creating?) the occasion as a means of severing a more personal tie. The new player, Grace (Erika Cuenca), changes the group’s musical and sexual balance, and despite her youth and seeming naivetée has a weather eye out for her own interests.

      While sorting all this out, the Quartet is preparing to play one of the most demanding works in the repertory, Beethoven’s Op. 131 (the “Opus” of the title), at the White House. The discarded Dorian has been lurking about, and the sudden illness of one of the group’s members shifts the balance of power yet again, with startling results. The group brings off its big concert triumphantly (though imagining Bush and Beethoven in the same universe, let alone the same room, is perhaps more of a stretch than most of us can make), but the celebration is brief. For the Lazzara Quartet, the knives go in even as the bows are laid down.

      Opus is not exactly ripped from the headlines, but the widely publicized recent troubles of the venerable Audubon Quartet find a clear echo here. Hollinger writes with a violist’s inside authority about the classical music world, and with a deft appreciation of small group dynamics at the closest range. Director Terrence J. Nolan keeps the beat through the whole of an uninterrupted ninety minutes, and the actors--also including Greg Wood and Douglas Rees--are uniformly good. A Curtis Institute quartet, as yet nameless itself, supplies the Beethoven.

      Only in the climactic scene do things go a bit over the top. I found it hard to believe that any music group could seek to recover its soul by quite literally destroying its body. These caveats aside, however, this latest collaboration between Hollinger and the Arden is a provocative and largely satisfying evening of theater. Both playwright and company have come far together. — ROBERT ZALLER

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