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Listening to An American Tragedy

I happily spent the afternoon listening to the Met broadcast of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, the new opera that the Metropolitan Opera premiered earlier this month. (See my review of press reactions to the premiere, An American Tragedy, on December 7.)

The opening scene, after a brief orchestral introduction, sets the tone. As the young Clyde, a child (Graham Phillips) sang, quite well, the hymn ’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus. This recalls the opening of the source text, Theodore Dreiser's novel of the same name, where the protagonist's older sister, Esta, leads the street singing of "number 27, How Sweet the Balm of Jesus' Love" outside the family's city mission, the background of a life that Clyde comes to despise. (This growing dissatisfaction is described in far greater detail in the novel, about 140 pages of Book One, than is possible in Picker's opera.) As far as I can determine, Dreiser invented the hymn used in his book, so Picker chose to use a real hymn not unlike it. The sound of young Clyde singing comes back several times in the opera, as different times in the narrative are mingled, when Roberta and Clyde exchange memories of childhood and at the execution at the end of the opera.

The opera, understandably, pretty much skips directly into Book Two, when Clyde goes to his uncle Samuel Griffiths' home in Lycurgus, New York, in the hope of finding a job. Ultimately, he meets the woman who will set the tragedy in motion, Sondra Finchley, whose money and social status lead Clyde to forsake his first love, the poor Roberta. Sondra's long aria "New York" is lovely, with at times a lush, Straussian orchestration that perfectly supported the luscious voice of Susan Graham. It even includes a mention of going to the opera, being admired by the men in the audience more than what was on stage, seeing the heroine die in the arms of her lover. Dreiser does not, I think, write about any of the characters going to hear opera, so this is a nice touch added by Picker and his librettist, Gene Scheer. In the first intermission panel with Picker, Patricia Racette, and Nathan Gunn, Susan Graham told a story about how Picker asked her what notes she liked. Apparently, he designed this aria around one of her favorites, the G on the top of the treble staff, and he even quipped that he was "a tailor, not a composer." At this matinee performance, one listener shouted "Brava," and I have to agree that the results were very good.

Roberta's pathetic scene at the end of the first act, when she nervously tells Clyde that she is "past her time" (keening at the top of her voice), is cluttered with dissonance, which is part of Picker's strategic use of atonal colors. The composer leaves no doubt that Clyde's promise, that he will marry her if she goes back home to her parents and waits for her, will not be kept and that the outcome of this story is not going to be happy. Patricia Racette had an intensely powerful sound in this broadcast, nearing a desperate shriek at those climactic points. We look forward to hearing her work with conductor Jiří Bělohlávek next season here in Washington, in David Alden's staging of Jenůfa.

Baritone Nathan Gunn sounded fine, but I understand from those who would know that his primary attraction is of a more visual nature. Mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, as Clyde's mother, Elvira Griffiths, was a knockout. Their final series of scenes together, at the end of the second act, was terrific, with the young Clyde again. I found the ending unsatisfying, with young Clyde's reprised hymn trailing down to its final note and an orchestral unison, to which instruments are added in a menacing crescendo.

Alex Ross is right, in his article for The New Yorker about the Met's season and this opera in particular (Opera Hot, December 26/January 2), that we should measure the reaction of critics carefully because of the circumstances:

Unfortunately, [opera] premières are still so infrequent that crushing expectations attend them, and disappointment inevitably ensues when a new work fails to astound Diaghilev out of his grave. Picker’s “An American Tragedy,” which had its first performance on December 2nd and plays through December 28th, has had a predictably mixed reception. Opera fans have acclaimed its solid construction and singable lines; critics, by and large, have scoffed. After two viewings, I find myself siding with the fans. The opera is a fitfully inspired creation, wavering along the fine line between tragedy and turgidity, but, on a primal, Pucciniesque level, it hits the mark.
It is impossible to know how this work will be regarded after fifty years, and we should all be careful of making broad judgments on limited hearing (one technically imperfect radio broadcast in my case and two live hearings at the Met, in Alex's). Even so, that is what we are called to do. Previous examples are always helpful. I could listen to my recording of Barber's Vanessa -- a Met commission, premiered there in 1958 -- time and time again, and I wish that it were performed live much more often than it is. I got very angry last year when the Pulitzer Prize folks broadened the criteria of the music prize to include jazz and music theater. Not because I don't like jazz and music theater -- well, that is partially true of the latter -- but because I heard someone saying that Bernstein's West Side Story should have won the Pulitzer that year instead of Vanessa. The former is perfectly nice, but to my ears and mind, Vanessa is a vastly superior work. If any opera ever deserved a Pulitzer, it was that one. Music theater folks, don't worry, I'm fairly sure that West Side Story has made a lot more money and received more prizes, if no Pulitzer. It doesn't need the help of people trying to give it a retroactive Pulitzer.

Where am I going with all this? Will I listen to a recording of An American Tragedy? I don't know. I have to admit that another very successful Met commission, Ghosts of Versailles (1991), is also something I return to quite frequently. I have enjoyed that opera more and more each time that I have listened to it again. My initial feeling is that, by comparison to those two previous Met commissions, this is a weaker work. Just because critics are tough on An American Tragedy, after all, does not mean that they want the enterprise of American operatic premieres to fail. Alex's reservations about the music are all on the money, as usual, and he is not the only one to think that this new work is inferior to Picker's 1996 opera, Emmeline. It is a success just to get a new opera premiered, and to have audiences responds so enthusiastically is its own tribute.

1 comment:

jfl said...

it's the perfect new opera for people who hate new opera. it ain't bad, it ain't great. it is the MET's statement about modern opera: we'll do it but we won't commit to the spirit of it.