Almost Utopia: The Residents and Radicals of Pikes Falls, Vermont, 1950, Photographs by Rebecca Lepkoff, Exhibition at the Vermont Center for Photography

In posterity Scott Nearing (1883-1983) has led a double life of sorts. In the rural areas of southern Vermont and coastal Maine, where he spent the second half of his century, a virtual cult surrounds his memory and that of his wife Helen, as pioneers of the Back-to-the-Land Movement, which was decisively influenced by their book, Living the Good Life, and its sequels. These remain popular with even the most suburban-minded second home buyers as guides to country living. While the movement flourished most purely and most intensely in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it continues today, focused around the environmental movement, and exerts a significant influence on at least certain aspects of how many of us live, even in places like Cambridge, Park Slope, or here in Williamstown. The Nearings’ teachings about simple, self-sufficient living in rural surroundings and their ideals are perpetuated by The Good Life Center at Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, their last home.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht by the TMC Fellows

The mood of the audience during intermission was particularly subdued. As I wandered in the dark among Tanglewood’s enormous pines, I overheard the same conversation at least three times:

“What did you think of it?”

(Pause) “It’s okay…”

It is possible to be more specific than that. The Tanglewood audience on the whole isn’t young. Most of these mostly affluent people are old enough to have some acquaintance with the politics of the left, but the annual TMC opera is hardly workers’ theater. As audiences crowd into the wonderful, atmospheric Tanglewood Theater to enjoy it, they are there in the spirit of what Brecht called “gourmet’s opera” (kulinarische Oper) in his essay about Mahagonny, in which he admitted that he and composer Kurt Weill had not totally eliminated this traditional element from their opera in their attempt to create a democratic epic opera. In the TMC production these operatic gourmet elements faired better than its Brechtian aspects, partly through the flaws of the dramaturgy itself, and partly through Doug Fitch’s slapdash staging and his and Yoshiaki Takao’s hideous design.

Vivica Genaux and Craig Rutenberg at Tannery Pond

Outstanding vocal performances, many of them by mezzo-sopranos, have been among the defining features of this summer’s musical life. Anne Sofie von Otter finally reached her true potential as Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens. The great Anna Caterina Antonacci thrilled us as Cassandra in the same opera, and a newcomer, Kate Lindsey, excelled in the small part of Ascane, going on to greater things (with the splendid baritione, Thomas Meglioranza) in John Harbison’s Symphony No. 5 and, magnificently, in Elliott Carter’s In the Distances of Sleep. Sopranos Lucy Shelton, Iwona Hossa, and, of course, Renée Fleming were equally unforgettable. But one of the most remarkable and fascinating of these took place last Saturday evening at Tannery Pond, when Vivica Genaux, accompanied by Craig Rutenberg, performed an unusual program of works little-known in the classical mainstream.

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