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"Of Mice and Men" is moving, magnificent

New York
New York State Theater
11/07/1998 -  and 13, 15, 19, 21 1998
Carlisle Floyd : Of Mice and Men
Anthony Dean Griffey (Lennie Small), Dean Ely (George Milton), Joel Sorensen (Curley), Julian Patrick (Candy), Nancy Allen Lundy (Curley's Wife), Victor Benedeti (Slim), Andrew Richards (Carlson), Ron Hilley (Luke), Gregory Hostetler (Haygood), Christopher Jackson (Pete), Boyd Schlaefer (Johnson), Jeffrey Lentz (Ballad Singer)
The New York City Opera Orchestra, Stewart Robertson (conductor)

This Saturday's premiere of New York City Opera's new production of Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, performed for an audience which included Floyd himself and John Steinbeck's widow Jean, was an absolute artistic triumph for the company. This co-production with Glimmerglass Opera is utterly exquisite in both conception and performance--a more haunting, beautiful, and shattering execution of this opera cannot easily be imagined.

Of Mice and Men, based on the Steinbeck novella of the same name, is also an artistic triumph for composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd. He weaves American folk melodies through a story that embodies the American fears of failure and loneliness and the American myth of the outsider. In this way, Of Mice and Men can be seen as a quintessentially American opera. But Floyd so skillful expands his themes that they transcend their cultural specificity and become relevant across cultural boundaries in a way few American opera's have been able to do.

The production is appropriately sparse and subdued for this modern tragedy, yet it reflects the inner nature of the characters of the drama in its incongruous beauty. John Conklin's sets manage to evoke the black and white images of the Depression era that still shade American culture while being completely immediate and accessible. "An Open Space" of Act I, Scene 1 and Act II, Scene 2 are dotted with heaps of rubbish which emanate a strangely lyrical quality that belie their external character. "The Barn" in Act II, Scene 1 is a supreme example of the designers art. A few wooden slats with a strong white light behind create a starkly intense image.

The performers were almost uniformly excellent. Julian Patrick's Candy was a devastating portrait of terrified and terrifying insecurity in old age. Nancy Allen Lundy used her pleasant soprano and slender body to demonstrate the frustration, vulnerability, and sensuality of the woman so overlooked that she doesn't even have a name, Curley's Wife. Joel Sorensen's Curley was a despicably vicious scrap of warped leather. Dean Ely brilliantly communicated the symbiotic relationship between the principle characters. His George could no more get along on an emotional and psychological level without Lennie than Lennie could get along on a quotidian basis without George. His reprise of the 'I'd be better off without you' theme from the beginning of the opera at the culmination of the action was almost unbearably painful. The persistent trouble with the singers was the usual one at City Opera--the peculiar acoustics of the house resulting in difficulty in hearing the voices over the orchestra.

The one break in the uniformity of the high level of performances was the offering of Anthony Dean Griffey. He simply was Lennie. In the precise angle of the stoop of his shoulders, the confused and nervous fluttering and grasping of his hands, the play of wonder, joy, befuddlement, anger, and distress across his face, he absolutely was the character, without characterization. His embodiment of the slow witted itinerant ranch-hand was so complete that there was no room to react to the brilliance of the acting, only to Lennie. Griffey communicated depths of nuance to this character that one wouldn't have imagined were there. More brilliant than his acting was his singing. He revealed in a New York Times interview that he been approached about taking on heldentenor roles, but this is a nonsensical proposition. His is a lyric tenor of the most delicate sort, but even the highest and softest notes sailed out over the orchestra into the far reaches of the house with an astonishing lack of effort.

Of Mice and Men once again demonstrates that the leadership of General Director Paul Kellogg is taking City Opera in the right direction artistically. Unfortunately, attendance projections could only justify five performances of this remarkable production, as compared to thirteen for a tired, old La Boheme. It is hoped that the opera-going public can be swayed from the warhorses in sufficient numbers to allow City Opera to continue to expand its artistic vision.

MK Blackwood



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