Glimmerglass Opera at its finest with intimate Copland and lusty Puccini
Like other centers of summertime opera in the United States, Glimmerglass Opera prides itself on nurturing the talents of young singers—so much so that it cast its first-ever production of Copland’s The Tender Land exclusively with members of its Young American Artists Program. The decision paid off handsomely at the second performance (July 13).
The opera was conceived for television (though rejected by NBC and ultimately given its premiere by New York City Opera in 1954), but the composer also apparently envisioned performances by university and conservatory opera workshops. As operas go, it packs a mild punch. Its source material was promising: Walker Evans’s depression-era photographs in James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, particularly one of a mother and daughter on a farm. But the libretto by Horace Everett is sometimes clumsy in its attempts at agrarian local color, and the bare-bones plot about a girl breaking away from her rigid family ultimately fails to convince.
Laurie Moss, about to graduate from high school, falls in love with Martin, a drifter to whom her grandfather offered work. Her mother suspects Martin and his cohort Top are the pair that recently molested a couple of girls, and while this turns out not to be the case, Grandpa Moss fires them anyway. Martin and Laurie decide to leave together, but Top convinces Martin that he can’t offer Laurie a proper life, and they go off without her. Though disappointed, Laurie decides to leave anyway, departing on the very morning of her graduation ceremony, which was to be a big family event.
The Tender Land is the operatic equivalent of Copland’s more popular ballets, like Appalachian Spring, and is rich in music with an Americana hue. It has several arresting numbers, including the quintet that ends Act 1 and Ma Moss’s final aria, in which she tries to make philosophical sense of her daughter’s departure. But much of the music bears the earmarks of Copland’s characteristic simplicity almost to a fault.
Lindsay Russell’s Laurie, sung in a lovely lyrical soprano, conveys the girl’s restlessness and coming of age, yet there is little the singer can do to make Laurie’s decision to leave—apparently irrevocable and with no place to go—seem plausible. Andrew Stenson sings with a velvety tenor as Martin, and baritone Mark Diamond is excellent, as Top, particularly in his Act 2 number, which sounds like one of Copland’s Old American Songs.
Joseph Barron delivers Grandpa Moss’s pronouncements in a potent and authoritative bass voice. And Stephanie Foley Davis sings Ma Moss with a handsome mezzo voice, although she is one character who perhaps could have profited from a singer of greater maturity (Frances Bible, for instance, in a televised performance from Midland, Michigan conducted by the composer).
Tazewell Thompson’s staging handles the emotional content deftly and includes a striking moment when the guests from Laurie’s graduation party reappear just as she goes off. The basic set by Donald Eastman, which serves for all four Glimmerglass productions this season, appears here in the guise of clapboards, with a background of sun-withered wheat. Angela Hood’s costumes has the women looking duly frumpy in 1930s style. It is a bonus to hear Glimmerglass’s orchestra play Copland’s score as he wrote it, in lieu of the reduced orchestration now commonly used for The Tender Land. Conductor Stewart Robertson makes the most of the opportunity.
After the mild-mannered experience of The Tender Land, it was a treat, and also a jolt, to encounter Glimmerglass’s lusty Tosca, which finds all three principal roles cast with singers equal to Puccini’s considerable vocal demands. Lise Lindstrom, who sang Turandot at the Met last season, here puts her steely soprano and gleaming high notes to work on behalf of another Puccini heroine. Yes, the voice is better suited to the icy Chinese princess than to the Roman diva, and Lindstrom makes heavy weather of a number of Tosca’s lyrical passages. But whenever she approaches the top of the staff or exceeds it, which is often, sparks fly. Would that every Tosca, when she describes planting a dagger in Scarpia’s gut, could lash out with a high C like hers. Lindstrom is hardly an ideal Tosca but is one I won’t soon forget.
Matching her squarely is the Cavaradossi of Adam Diegel, a tenor with burnished tone and a ringing top. His first aria, Recondita armonia, could have profited from greater dynamic contrast, but he made up for it in È lucevan le stelle, which he shaped as a crescendo, starting softly and building to a big-voiced close. Diegel’s high notes are exciting, but he has a habit of coming off them with a slight sob. Whether this is intentional or a vocal peculiarity, he ought to address it.
Lester Lynch sings Baron Scarpia with a plush and mighty baritone that rolls out in a way that reminded me a bit of Leonard Warren and has the same slight tendency toward unsteadiness. Baritones playing Scarpia often assume the air of a cultivated gentleman, but Lynch will have nothing of it, preferring to portray Scarpia as the fearsome thug he really is. The fact that Lynch is powerfully built adds a special edge to his showdown with Tosca.
The production won’t please those who lament the passing of Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish sets at the Met, but Ned Canty’s direction is taut and free of goofy ideas. In the summer’s most creative use of Eastman’s sets, Act 1 plays in a simple parish church, where crucifer and those waiving the censers are laymen, while the Palazzo Farnese has been turned by Scarpia into a hotbed of police activity, with minions working away at office tables. Jeff Harris’s lighting contributes helpfully to the pervading sinister tone. Judging from a vintage typewriter and the police uniforms (Matthew Pachtman designed the costumes), the opera is updated to a time before the midpoint of the last century. Conductor David Angus presides over an urgent reading of the score that meshes well with the performances of the singers and that emphasizes sweep over subtlety of detail.
The Tender Land runs through August 21 and Tosca through August 24. www.glimmerglass.org; 607-547-2255.