First, let wide acclaim go forth to this crop of Palm Beach Opera’s Young Artists, who took Ned Rorem’s difficult music for Our Town and made it palatable.
Each and every one of them sang splendidly in librettist J.D. McClatchy’s adaptation of one of America’s most popular plays by Thornton Wilder. Brilliant direction by Fenlon Lamb gave real meaning to this excerpted and shortened version of the 2005 opera, seen Jan. 31 in one of the One Opera in One Hour workshops series at the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace.
The new head coach of the Young Artists program, Timothy Cheung, became the excellent music director of the opera, playing and conducting from the piano. His vigorous attack and clear signals gave momentum to the work.
Soprano Claire Kuttler had the lead role of Emily and at first seemed to have difficulty vocally (perhaps she had a head cold), but like the trouper she is, came through with a delightful soliloquy just before her wedding to George. The voice is pure golden soprano.
George, the “boy next door” sung by tenor Nicholas Nestorak — who thrilled audiences with his many high Cs in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment at last December’s outdoor concert — did a solid job going through nervousness before his wedding to Emily and her subsequent death in childbirth. A very believable singing actor, with a bright vocal production that sounded fine all evening.
Brilliantly guiding the audience along, playing Wilder’s Stage Manager, was Joseph Dennis, tenor, who had charm to spare and a wonderful stage presence. He also gamely played a soda jerk, lover, minister, undertaker and props man, knocking on imaginary doors and moving chairs and tables around. His cemetery soliloquy was beautifully rendered with a voice that is honey-coated mellow and easy on the ear.
It is noteworthy here to say that librettist McClatchy was in the audience. Knowing of the short time allotted for these special opera presentations, he wrote a new introduction for the Stage Manager to say, naming past events and setting the stage for what was to come. Perhaps this could be done for future one-hour works, since I’ve always felt that the story was left hanging out there to be guessed at by folks unfamiliar with opera plots.
Bass-baritone Peter Tomaszewski played Dr. Gibbs, George’s father, having just sung the role of the doctor in Verdi’s Macbeth for the PBO’s first mainstage production. He has an incredible voice; so powerful, with its own special timbre. He’s very tall, with striking good looks, and I’m sure he’ll be taking on major roles of Verdi’s earlier operas, like Attila, and even be ready for a Ring cycle in the not-too-distant future.
Mrs. Gibbs, sung by mezzo JoAna Rusche, did a good solid acting job and produces a lovely sound to her warm, supple mezzo voice. Baritone Tobias Greehalgh’s Mr. Webb, Emily’s father, was perfection in every detail. His acting, his facial expressions, and his genuine warmth came across to the audience immediately. His is another powerful voice, with a delivery that can be at once loud and sensitive; it has a flexibility the envy of most singers with a distinguished timbre. He is also a well-built, agile young man, who would surely be any savvy opera directors’ first choice for Mozart’s Figaro.
Mezzo Rachel Arky, singing Mrs. Webb, Emily’s mother, was wonderful.
Another fine singing actress with a beautiful voice, at times nicely dusky in its delivery. Tenor Evan Ferrar’s Simon Stimson was properly monotonal in his vocal delivery as the now-dead neighbor in the graveyard at Grover’s Corners, N.H. And Kerry Rocks’ booming mezzo, for her character of Mrs. Soames, with an itch for the soda jerk, stole every scene she was in.
At times, the 90-year-old Ned Rorem’ s music appears to move into an accessible direction, as people like to say of modern music, which is so often atonal. Sadly, like so many composers of modern opera, Steven Paulus and Jake Heggie, for instance, they get hold of a soaring melody and seem not to be able to carry it along to a satisfactory conclusion. The arc of the melody is only half-drawn.
Such half-tunes like Mr. Gibbs’ When I Got Married and George Gibbs’ Girls Are Good, plus Emily’s lovely aria after she enters the graveyard, all have such promise but fail, to my mind, in not being rounded out satisfactorily , keeping the listener on edge.
After the opera, which was warmly received by an appreciative full house, McClatchy, professor of English at Yale University, and librettist of 20 operas in the last 20 years, took questions from the audience. In essence, he said writing for opera is tough in that musical time is slower than normal speech pattern meter. In a favorite play like Our Town, there are a few lines that everyone wants to hear. But it’s difficult selecting them and condensing the play at the same time.
Thornton Wilder even condensed his play for a radio program lasting an hour. He also refused Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein permission to set it to music, when approached by them in his lifetime. The two important characters are George and Emily, McClatchy averred, and Grover’s Corners is how we like to think of our past. The play celebrates how we (Americans) live our lives, but in Act III it becomes very dark with the death of Emily. Edward Albee, one of our best American playwrights, thinks this the best American play despite all the sentimental nostalgia.
Opera is a very new art form, invented in the 16th century. Only photography and film are newer. The plain English of this opera seems very un-operatic, but to American ears it has a kind of immediacy.
Palm Beach Opera’s next One Opera in One Hour is George Frideric Handel’s Alcina, which will be seen at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace.
Rex Hearn founded the Berkshire Opera Company and frequently writes for Palm Beach ArtsPaper.