An insightful production of a distinguished work
The Alice Busch Opera Theater
07/10/2010 - and July 13, 19, 25, August 1*, 5, 7, 14, 21, 2010
Aaron Copland: The Tender Land
Lindsay Russell (Laurie Moss), Andrew Stenson (Martin), Joseph Barron (Grandpa Moss), Stephanie Foley Davis (Ma Moss), Mark Diamond (Top), Chris Lysack (Mr. Splinters), Rebecca Jo Loeb (Beth Moss), Jamilyn Manning-White (Mrs. Jenks), Claire Shackleton (Mrs. Splinters), Will Liverman (Mr. Jenks), Jonathan Lasch (First Man), Michael Luby (Second Man), Jessica Cates (Young Guest)
Glimmerglass Opera Chorus, Bonnie Koestner (Chorus Master), Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra, Stewart Robinson (Conductor)
Tazewill Thompson (Director), Donald Eastman (Sets), Andrea Hood (Costumes), Robert Wierzel (Lighting)
L. Russell & A. Stenson (© Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Opera)
The Tender Land is an obscure work by a well-known (and arguably iconic) composer. Soon after its 1954 premiere by the New York City Opera (when it received a grand total of two performances), an expanded revision of the work seemed to have been officially relegated to the category of “suitable for school performances only”. Tazewell Thompson’s eloquent production, conducted by Glimmerglass’s former Music Director, Stewart Robertson, makes a strong case for it to receive full professional treatment.
Right from the start Robert Wierzel’s distinguished lighting matches the glow of Copland’s distinctive orchestral sound. Donald Eastman’s simple sets (plundered from a production of another work from several seasons back) are more than just serviceable - they really enhance the action.
The 13-member cast has been chosen entirely from the ranks of Glimmerglass’s Young American Artists Program (YAAP). I was unnecessarily apprehensive that some of them might have difficulty “playing old” in a story that focuses on inter-generational conflict, to whit: a teenage girl, Laurie Moss, rebels against her grandfather’s stifling restrictions. She and an itinerant farm labourer (known simply as Martin) fall in love. Even though he and his buddy, the roguish Top, depart under the cover of darkness, she decides to leave home by herself. The action begins on a summer afternoon and ends early the next morning.
Copland wanted something “simple” from his librettist, “Horace Everett” (nom-de-plume for Erik Johns, a dancer and painter who was a former lover of the composer.) The libretto has been criticized as being too simple, telling a story that can be seen has clichéd if not hackneyed. There is some truth to this, but the central story comes alive (at least in this production) amidst a deftly assembled portrait of an insular rural society suspicious of outsiders. Flawed libretti seem to vastly outnumber perfect ones, but they don’t prevent their operas from being performed. In addition, Copland’s music was criticized as being old fashioned in the fifties, a charge that posterity cares little about.
Lindsay Russell does a fine job as Laurie, accomplishing long vocal lines with apparent ease. As her sympathetic but ineffectual mother, Stephanie Foley Davis gives the kind of well-grounded portrayal that the entire cast realizes. Andrew Stenson’s voice has a smooth dreamy quality suitable to the romantic labourer Martin.
Joseph Barron does a great job as the suspicious Grandpa Moss. As a baritone he has no doubt accepted, if not embraced, a career that will include fathers, grandfathers, patriarchs, etc. (At the 1954 premiere the role was taken by a 27-year-old with a notable career ahead of him, Norman Treigle. The conductor on that occasion was the 24-year-old Thomas Schippers.)
Mark Diamond gives an exuberant performance as the colourful rascal, Top. Another maturely realized performance is Chris Lysack as the postman and news-bearer Mr. Splinters.
It would be wonderful if this production inspires other companies to perform the piece. It’s not merely an easily-dismissed anodyne work. In this realization it contains some real bite. It fully deserves a place in the Americana section of the operatic repertory along with works like Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe and Carlyle Floyd’s Susanna.