19 Aug 2011

Previn and Caird’s Brief Encounter

The chief classical music and opera critic for the Los Angeles Times often criticizes any new operas based on familiar films or classic novels, on the basis of artistic timidity and conservatism.

Think of the last three new operas which debuted at Los Angeles Opera — Il Postino, The Fly, and Grendel. Each was very different from the others, but at least for publicity purposes, much of the audience would have some familiarity with the material going in. In the end, all that should matter is the actual artistic quality of the resulting work (in the case of those three, in respective order: “qualified,” “abysmal,” and “interesting but flawed”).

Your reviewer does not know whether that critic reviewed the 2009 Houston Grand Opera premiere of André Previn and John Caird’s operatic adaptation of Brief Encounter, based on the well-known David Lean film. It would certainly have been an easy target, however. Here is a story of suppressed emotion, perfectly suited for the intimacy of close-ups and the relevant restraint of film acting. Somehow Previn and Caird convinced themselves this would good material for the field of opera — the core of which tends to be heightened emotion and dramatic but unsubtle effects. Perhaps just the mere renown of the film and its evocative title deluded the creators…

Helen Jesson and Alec Harvey, neither happily married, meet at a train station. They quickly feel a strong emotional attraction, and though Mrs. Jesson is nagged by guilt, she finds herself on the threshold of commencing an affair with Harvey, until he himself decides to make their mutual temptation impossible to pursue, by moving out of the country.

The lack of narrative incident and the mostly interior emotional conflicts make this one of those libretti where the singers are always announcing to the audience what they feel:

LAURA: I’ve been such a fool/I’ve been such a fool/I’ve fallen in love


ALEC: All my Thursdays are the same/Dreaming, yearning, planning, fearing/Praying for Laura to be here

The rest of the opera, in keeping with the original story, is a morass of the mundane, with talk of tea and weather and huge helpings of cliché (“time and tide will tell”). The exaggerated British accents of some of the singers of the smaller roles prove grating as well. A little of this goes a long way, and it should be pointed out that almost 30 minutes pass in act one before the would-be lovers have their first conversation alone. Previn scores these prosaic sections of the opera with his more pointed, acerbic modernistic style. The lyrical outbursts, when they come, are welcome as respite from the arid recitatives. Unfortunately, the most potent of Previn’s themes bears a very strong resemblance to the opening notes of Leonard Bernstein’s music for “Make our garden grow” from Candide. One can only imagine that with as esteemed a figure as André Previn, no one dared point this out to him.

In the lead roles, Nathan Gunn makes the best effect, his manicured, smooth approach perfect for the role. Elizabeth Futral as Helen is asked to sing at the top of her range far too much. Her final scene, therefore, is her most affecting, as Previn finally allows her to slip down into lower territory. Kim Josephson, in the thankless role of the husband for whom Helen forsakes true love, earns a fairly good solo in the last act.

Perhaps a video of this production would have produced evidence that Previn and Caird’s adaptation made a stronger impact seen staged. A better bet would be that any video would only call to mind comparisons with the classic film, which would be not in favor of the opera.

Chris Mullins