American Gothic – Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, Glimmerglass 2010
The Tender Land
Music by Aaron Copland
Libretto by Horace Everett (Erik Johns)
Conductor, Stewart Robertson
Director, Tazewell Thompson
Sets, Donald Eastman
Costumes, Andrea Hood
Lighting, Robert Wierzel
Assistant Conductor, Zachary Schwartzman
Assistant Director, E. Reed Fisher
Chorus Master, Bonnie Koestner
Principal Coach/Accompanist, Jocelyn Dueck
Assistant Coach/Accompanist, Clinton Smith
Stage Manager, E. Reed Fisher
Projected Titles, Kelley Rourke
Hair and Makeup Design, Anne Ford-Coates
Laurie Moss, Lindsay Russell
Martin, Andrew Stenson
Top, Mark Diamond
Ma Moss, Stephanie Foley Davis
Mr. Splinters, Chris Lysack
Grandpa Moss, Joseph Barron
Mrs. Jenks, Jamilyn Manning-White
Beth Moss, Rebecca Jo Loeb
Mrs. Splinters, Claire Shackleton
Mr. Jenks, Will Liverman
In a year that has seen several stellar productions of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town (for example, Walking the Dog Theater at PS21, and the Williamstown Theater), perhaps it is a necessary corrective to experience Copland’s subtle and discomfiting The Tender Land. Copland’s collaboration in the 1940 film version of the Wilder classic has helped to promulgate the myth of a gingham-and-apple-pie-innocence as the psycho-social basis of the Rural American Gothic. As beautifully Transcendentalist as Our Town is in depicting the ethos of a 1900s New England town, the darker, narrow-minded qualities of insularity should not be overlooked. Copland’s score for the film has abetted the play in providing a heart-string-pulling idealization of what family life could be, but what always remains an elusive fiction. The Tender Land, Copland’s only full-length opera, and a work whose final shape would trouble him for years, is something like Of Mice and Men Meets Grover’s Corners. Copland, of course, wrote the music for the film version of Steinbeck’s tragic tale, and probably appreciated how “different from us folk” really works in the cemented close-mindedness of much of this country. It’s easy to imagine personal motives for Copland’s stirrings away from Wilder’s benignity. Copland was comfortable and public about his homosexuality, and Wilder was apparently repressive and closeted. Both artists having reached the status of Deans of American Arts, with hugely popular appeal, one could imagine the daring Copland having some interest in the heartbreak borne of those on the peripheries of the socially phobic grass-fed American family. Perhaps something like this was on his mind when the composer saw the photographs of depression-era sharecroppers in James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The images are haunting reminders how the Depression sang the Song of Experience to Wilder’s earlier Song of Innocence. Copland’s partner at the time at his home in Sneden’s Landing, New York, Erik Johns (Horace Everett), wrote a libretto, mixing free and rhymed verse, depicting twenty-four hours in the life of two drifters and their encounter with a farm family. The genesis of the opera, first in one act, then, ultimately as a three-act work, was detailed by conductor Stewart Robertson in his informative lecture before the performance. Originally commissioned by Rodgers and Hammerstein for an NBC-TV production, The Tender Land had to wait for a New York City Opera premiere in 1954 after NBC backed out. In his disarming Glaswegian-burr-tinted accent, Mr. Robertson confessed a long-standing admiration of Copland’s music and The Tender Land in particular. His affection for this work, and his many musical insights, I believe, was one seminal factor in the success of the evocative performance of this poignant work at Glimmerglass this afternoon. The creative team of director Tazewell Thompson, set designer Donald Eastman, lighting director Robert Wierzel, and costumer Andrea Hood provided an ideal backbone for the formidable talents of the singers from Glimmerglass’s Young American Artist Program who were featured in all singing parts.
Musically, the work is delicately textured, with a restrained neo-classical rhetoric. It rarely strikes out with operatic gesture or sweep, but ably supports Erik Johns’s sometimes fragile verse. Motifs come and go, and rarely grow – a phenomenon Mr. Robertson brought out in his lecture. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the piece is the way it unflaggingly holds one’s interest without grandstanding music or text. Of course, one could easily fault the work as more introspectively poetic than outwardly dramatic.
The Mosses have a farm. Young Laurie Moss is about to graduate from high school (she will be the first in her family to do so). Ma and Grandpa Moss reinforce the ethic of staying bound to the homestead – an example for Laurie’s younger sister Beth (Pa Moss is nowhere to be found in this opera). A graduation party is planned, while Grandpa Moss assesses two drifters (Top and Martin) for transient harvest work. Martin is quiet and grateful for chance to work; Top is something of a loose cannon: he brags to everyone about his womanizing and his time in prison. Top has eyed Laurie. Clearly, Top and Martin are viewed as “outsiders.” The news reaches the attention of Ma Moss that two drifters have been accosting young girls. One immediately foresees the central plot device: Top and Martin are either these very villains, or, more probably will be mistaken for them. A graduation party takes place and provides an opportunity for Copland to give us the sort of American dance music for which he is so well loved. Reticent Martin reveals his desire to marry and settle down; Laurie wants something more than what the homestead offers. Grandpa is shocked to discover this burgeoning bond, and feels his trust in the newly hired men betrayed. It is now believed by Ma and Grandpa that Top and Martin are the culprits behind the molestations. Of course, the audience feels that the two men have been unfairly accused, and are being victimized by a stern and repressive Pater Familias. So, it does not come as a surprise when we (and the Mosses) learn that the real culprits have been apprehended. But, Grandpa, who is quite drunk, will not be assuaged: Top and Martin, in his eyes, are still bad guys, and must leave. Laurie and Martin plan an elopement, expanding the drift team to three. Top convinces Martin not to attempt such a move. Laurie should not be fated to live the hard road life that Top feels Martin should embrace with no other partner. Martin acquiesces, and abandons Laurie in the morning. Rather than attending her graduation, Laurie, still desiring liberation, leaves home.
There is a sense of tragic resignation in the perpetual mutability of Top and Martin’s drifting, yet immutability in inability of both to find any affection or bond beyond their self-stifling vistas. Laurie, by leaving home and denying her graduation, has broken the bondage of her family’s values and expectation. One cannot help but feel that her journey to selfhood will ultimately be anything but tragic. The alienation the elder Mosses felt to the outsiders became the means for their own familiy’s dissolution. Yet, Laurie’s little sister, Beth, who plays by herself outside the homestead before Laurie’s transformation and afterwards, eerily frames the opera’s transition as part of nature’s cycle, like growth and harvest.
Mr. Eastman’s cleverly recycled sets (from an earlier production of Death in Venice), with a backdrop of rye stalks, gave the set an Andrew Wyeth-like wash and primitivism. The oppressively repetitive stalks of rye especially reminded me of Terrence Malik’s Days of Heaven, which spun a similarly unsettling existential tale.
As Mr. Robertson reminded us, the opera presents great challenges for young singers who must convey their youth in the more refined musical textures, yet stride above the orchestra at dramatic peaks. The cast, while young and early on in their careers, was remarkably good, both vocally and dramatically. Soprano Lindsay Russell, as Laurie, projected an inner radiance and sense of wonder at her world and the future awaiting her. Attractive to hear and see, one always heard in her voice and expression the yearning and longing for what the rites of passage had to offer. Ms. Russell’s voice was warm, beautiful, and expressively pliant. Ma Moss, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, scenting the air of change and growth, reminisced in her plaintive and expressive aria in Act I. The horizon with its strangeness and allure, whether rosy or disassociating, is celebrated in the famous chorus, “The Promise of Living.” Grandpa Moss, bass-baritone Joseph Barron, gave a vivid portrayal of the suspicious paternalist, who never yields control to the forces of growth and mutability.
His sonorously rich and deep lower range was well exploited in Copland’s tessitura for this stern character. Baritone Mark Diamond, as the swaggering Top, is another singer with a bright future. Although the character of Top is hardly a sympathetic one, Mr. Diamond’s beautiful voice and striking stage appearance gave the character much redemption. Tenor Andrew Stenson (who, ironically, has sung the role of Curley in Of Mice and Men) was a perfect match for both Top and Laurie. A very engaging singing actor, Mr. Stenson’s aria in Act II, in which he reveals his aspirations, was wonderfully expressive. The ensuing duet with Ms. Russell, was, likewise, beautiful; the pair’s intimate moments of dream sharing concluded on four unsettling chords as Copland brings in the harshly accusatorial Grandpa. Ms. Jenks, a neighbor, was portrayed by Jamilyn Manning-White, another soprano with great promise and talent. She had been heard earlier this year singing selections from this opera.
The motif first heard early on in the opera, that “Dancing doesn’t go on forever,” becomes the motif of separation and dissolution of the lovers’ plans. In Top’s damning logic, having Laurie on board reduced a drifter’s freedom of choice. Laurie’s parting at the end felt very much like Emily’s death in Our Town, but with a more familiar and palpable void facing her – the uncertainty of our very existence during our lifetime. Copland’s creamy dissonances, while never startling us, never completely reassure us either. The balance of the homespun here-and-now with the unsettling vagaries of the larger swath of space and time, make The Tender Land a thoughtful and haunting experience.