New York’s Metropolitan Opera House likely hasn’t seen many productions where the audience gets to its feet and sings the “F” word at the top of its lungs. But then again, the Met hasn’t hosted many classical interpretations of one of British rock’s great concept albums.
Saturday night, The Who‘s Pete Townshend‘s brought his classical re-imagining of his 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia to the grand surroundings of the Met. It was part of a short U.S. tour featuring a fully orchestrated version of the album that includes classics like “Love, Reign O’er Me,” “5:15” and “The Real Me.” Townshend’s wife, Rachel Fuller, did the orchestrations for the piece.
Accompanied by an orchestra and choir under the direction of conductor Robert Ziegler, Townshend, along with Billy Idol and award-winning British tenor Alfie Boe, recreated the story of Jimmy, a frustrated ’60’s-era British mod who rebels against his family and society with the help of sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and cool clothes.
As the orchestra played the first few notes of one of Quadrophenia’s main musical motifs, the audience went wild. When Townshend made his first on-stage appearance — portraying “the Godfather” during the song “The Punk Meets the Godfather’ — they went wilder still. He appeared on and off throughout the evening, playing acoustic guitar on a few numbers and providing comic relief as Jimmy’s dad, but Boe was the star of the show.
Bringing a rock energy and charisma to a role embodied by both Townshend and Who singer Roger Daltrey, Boe paced the stage, leaped in the air and invited the audience to sing along. Idol, as Ace Face, sang lead on “Bell Boy,” and chimed in on songs that required extra sneer, snarl and attitude.
Because Quadrophenia is musically rich to begin with, much of the material — especially the long instrumentals “The Rock” and “Quadrophenia” — sounds fantastic in the orchestral versions. Surprisingly, some of the more rock-oriented numbers, like “5:15,” “Doctor Jimmy” and “Drowned,” work well too. But on Saturday night, the tricky time signatures of some songs resulted in transposed lyrics and — in the case of “Helpless Dancer” — the need for a complete do-over.
Vocally, Quadrophenia is a difficult album, requiring a singer to veer between aggression, tenderness and self-pity, but Boe handled it with aplomb, and brought down the house with the closing number, “Love Reign O’er Me.” The fact that a trained opera singer like Boe didn’t exactly breeze through the material, though, highlights what a skilled vocalist Daltrey is.
After that, Townshend, Idol and Boe returned for an unnecessary, ramshackle version of “The Real Me.” Better to have simply closed the night with the passionate “Love Reign O’er Me,” and had the three take their bows along with the orchestra.
Ultimately, Classica Quadrophenia is a fun musical experiment that presents familiar material in a new and interesting light. It also displays Townshend’s prodigious skill as a composer, which should be enough for any Who fan, or music fan, for that matter.
Classic Quadrophenia plays two more dates: September 13 in Chicago with special guest Eddie Vedder, and September 16 at the Greek Theater in L.A. The Who resume their tour in Brazil September 21.