Jordan Runtagh
September 11, 2017 07:58 PM

What do you get when you strap a full orchestra onto one of the most high octane rock operas in history? You get an instant classic.

Pete Townshend came roaring into New York City’s fabled Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center this weekend with the force of a thousand GS Scooters as he delivered Classic Quadrophenia—an orchestral reimagining of the Who’s 1973 concept album. Though he contributed acoustic guitar to a handful of songs, the maestro mostly left it to the philharmonic ensemble lead by Robert Ziegler, who also conducted Rachel Fuller’s arrangements on the 2015 studio recording. 

While the piece was originally crafted as a paean to the Who’s early days as fixtures of England’s Mod scene in the mid-’60s, the lush melodic textures of the source material made the transition from stadium rock to symphonic grandeur fairly seamless. The lengthy instrumental passage “I Am The Sea,” almost cheekily self-serious on the original album, took its rightful place as a grand scale overture when performed by a full orchestra. While the music sounded quite at home inside the stately MET auditorium, the audience’s response was less run-of-the-mill. After all, it’s hard to imagine raised metal horns during a Schubert symphony. 

Deputizing for Roger Daltrey’s lead vocals was award-winning British tenor Alfie Boe, who attacked the lead role of Jimmy with the intensity of an Olympic athlete. While managing to scale the octaves—and match the emotional nuance—of the original, Boe somehow found energy to leap about, pump his fists, and stage a few literal mic-drops—likely a first at the MET. Same with a certain four-letter-word screamed at exceedingly high volume. 

In addition to Boe, ’80s New Wave icon Billy Idol had an extended cameo as the Ace Face, skillfully singing his lines through a charismatic sneer. Townshend himself handled a few vocal parts, most fittingly on “The Punk and the Godfather”—portraying the latter, naturally—and most hilariously on “The Dirty Jobs” as a buttoned-up, wooly-capped factory nine-to-fiver. The camaraderie between the men, whose roles fell somewhere between actors and rock frontmen, was apparent with every improvised dance step and each ad-libbed physical joke.

William Snyder

The comic relief failed to detract from the emotional impact of the work, which is undiminished by the decades. Taken at face value, Quadrophenia is one of the most fully realized narratives in the rock canon, but now there is the added element of time. Originally recorded in 1973 by a 28-year-old man looking back at his 20-year-old self, the nostalgia has become exponentially greater. Townshend is now 72. His bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwhistle have both gone to the great Holiday Inn in the sky, tragically accepting Townshend’s onetime lyrical dare to die before they got old. While Quadrophenia was written with an eye on the past, the Classic Quadrophenia project was assembled with an eye on the inevitable. “I didn’t want to be on my death-bed thinking, ‘Oh f—, I wish I had rubber stamped something that I approved of here, rather than allowing somebody else to translate it their way,'” Townshend admitted to PEOPLE in June.

Onstage at the MET, one can’t help but wonder what’s behind those blue eyes. Is he thinking back to his days playing Maximum R&B in the Swinging Sixties? Or is he thinking back to the ambitious man who immortalized the time in a piece of music—a man who thought he’d seen life but had so much more to go.

It’s a habit of the young to be nostalgic for a time not long gone by. Perhaps that’s why the crowd is filled with a remarkably high number of high school students, singing along to every word and then discussing prom dresses during intermission. Townshend’s music skillfully evokes the alienation common throughout the difficult sojourn to adulthood. That’s why he will forever remain rock’s patron saint of teenagers.

Musically, hearing Townshend’s songs bolstered by a full orchestra truly cements his status as a composer in the continuum of Tchaikovsky, Straus and Bernstein. The sooner everyone moves past the artificial demarcation of Rock and Classical the better. His music will be around for a long time to come, so you owe it to yourself to see it done by the man himself with Classic Quadrophenia. Even for those who’ve worn out the grooves of their old vinyl double disc, it’ll be like hearing the music for the very first time. Promise.

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