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22.8.05

Summer Opera: The Tender Land at Bard

The other opera I should have gone up to Bard SummerScape to hear is one of my favorites, Aaron Copland's The Tender Land (premiered by New York City Opera in 1954). Bard performed the chamber arrangement of the opera, made in 1987 by Murry Sidlin. I agree with Kyle Gann at PostClassic, who expressed his incomprehension at why this work is not more popular with audiences. Some critics and listeners are put off by the accessibility of Copland perhaps, as Kyle also brilliantly noted in a post about Billy the Kid:

Charles Ives wrote, "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair." Today we need an addendum: "Profundity in music is too often confused with something that forces the ears to lie on a bed of nails."
That is a statement to live by, I think. I found only one real review of The Tender Land, by Anthony Tommasini (A Girl, Her Suitors and Waving Wheat, but Fate Intrudes on This Farm Tale, August 6) for the New York Times:
Rejected for broadcast by NBC, "The Tender Land," with a libretto by Erik Johns, was given its premiere by the New York City Opera in 1954. The tepid reception to the work was a disappointment for the composer, who sounded almost apologetic in talking about the score. The music was "very plain, with a colloquial flavor," he wrote, "closer to musical theater than to grand opera." Maybe so. But you can only hope that Copland finally understood what an affecting, honest and musically elegant work this modest opera can be in a sensitive production. [...]

The sets by Antje Ellermann and costumes by Michelle R. Phillips evoke the requisite Walker Evans images: the farmhouse with peeling paint; the field of golden wheat; the rickety fence; Laurie and her little sister, Beth, in gingham dresses; Ma Moss on the porch in her wicker rocker. The director Erica Schmidt elicits beguiling portrayals from the appealing cast, including the choristers who sing and dance at Laurie's party: rugged farmers with unkempt beards and their hardy wives in flower-print dresses, with a few impish children in tow. The conductor James Bagwell delves beneath the surface of Copland's score -- all open-spaced chords, comfortingly tonal harmony, folksy evocations of hymns, dances and ditties -- to reveal the bustling rhythmic intensity and pungent chromatic bite of the music.
Tommasini praises the singers, too, to varying degrees. It sounds like it was a good production, all the more not to be missed since this opera is not produced all that often. Shame on me. Apparently, not many critics reviewed the opera at all (Alex Ross wrote a little capsule on the Bard festival for The New Yorker this week), which is too bad.

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