04 May 2008
Ned Rorem's Our Town
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Martha Graham used to say, “In order for there to be dance, there must be something that needs to be danced.”
This occurred to me while attending Ned Rorem’s spare, elegant, uninteresting full-length opera (his first after a lifetime composing nearly every other sort of thing) derived from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play as rooted in the poetry of the ordinary (pre-World War I New England variety) as the operatic form seems calculated to enhance and transcend it. Mr. Rorem himself has said that when he first took on this project (here receiving its New York premiere — the world premiere took place two years ago) he pondered whether Our Town called for operatic treatment, and whether he was the man to set it. My guess is the answers in both cases are clearly negative, but he blithely went right ahead.
Is there anything in Our Town, a play in which God is the most prosaic of stage managers (agnostic to boot, as Wilder was), and death is restfully preferable to even the pleasantest sort of living, that could be enhanced by song? Perhaps — but not the sort of song Mr. Rorem has provided, the through-composed recitative of mid-twentieth-century opera without those embarrassing tune thingies that bear unfortunate comparison with weak Broadway musicals. When Mr. Rorem requires a real tune — a hymn for the burial of Emily, his heroine, say, or her wedding march — what we get is a traditional hymn sung against ironic orchestral discords, or a few bars of Mendelssohn — because Mr. Rorem can’t really be trusted (by his librettist, J.D. McClatchy, or by himself, evidently) to come up with anything that would conjure the notion of “hymn” or “wedding march” on his own bat. The dialogue of the opera — or should I say play? — is offered without emotion either because the play does not call for much of it or because the idiom in use does not. (I wasn’t sure.) The most appealing and interesting portions of Mr. Rorem’s contribution were the few — very few — times he allowed more than one person to sing together: a trio of taunting baseball players calling “George!” when the hero pays too much attention to the girl he is sweet on, or the chorale of the dead that opens Act II. Otherwise, there isn’t much here here. If you’re going to make an opera, you really ought to let people let loose to sing a bit.
We do get singable vocal lines — after half a century producing beloved art songs, there isn’t much about writing graciously for the voice that Mr. Rorem does not know. It can’t be an accident that the large cast of Juilliard students with a considerable and varied level of experience all sounded able and grateful. The opera gives each one his or her moment — which no doubt will win it a future in the repertory of music schools if nowhere else. That’s too bad if it gets in the way of productions of better works for large casts, such as The Mother of Us All or The Ballad of Baby Doe.
The Mother of Us All gives us a hint about what went wrong in Our Town: Thomson took Gertrude Stein’s text, as he had the earlier Four Saints in Three Acts, and set it just as he found it, using the hymn tune background of his Missouri upbringing to create a nostalgic rather than referential score, full of original flavor. Rorem, though he comes from the same part of the country and, like Thomson, was educated in Paris by Nadia Boulanger, has self-consciously divorced himself from Americana and can find no way to link back to it. His hymn is not a charming in-the-style-of, but an intrusion. Nothing downhome permeates the background here. As for the play, it is typical of the libretto that the witty sidelong touches, geological and statistical “newsbreaks” quoted by one character or another, find no answering wit in Rorem’s music — they appear only in the surtitles. If the opera were produced without them, they’d have to go. Wilder’s balance of the quotidian with the eternal is unsprung, here and elsewhere. McClatchy and Rorem simply did not trust their material. Or (very likely) Our Town is a play requiring no song at all — it’s got its own, as much as it could ever need.
It was difficult not to compare Our Town to another American opera I’d seen recently: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Did this stage work respond adequately to, or even explicate, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy? There’s no way for me, only vaguely familiar with that philosophy or that life, to judge, but what Satyagraha did do was concoct so pleasing a musical language for that life that audiences are drawn to contemplate its meaning and achievement, both of which are undoubtedly worthy of operatic grandiloquence — rather the way Stein and Thomson meditated on Susan B. Anthony’s achievement in The Mother of Us All. Our Town may or may not deserve musicalization on some level, but the musical language Rorem has provided is inadequate to draw us in, to make us think the question worth resolving. We simply don’t want to spend time with this music. We’d rather hear Mendelssohn straight.
The expert Juilliard cast was led by Jennifer Zetlan, who sang Emily at the premiere, whose unsettlingly bright smile when she meets the other dead folks in the graveyard was presumably approved by the composer, and whose big bright soprano seems destined to fill larger houses in the very near future. I especially liked the voice and poise of Jessica Klein as Mrs. Gibbs and Julie Boulianne as a nosey neighbor, Marc Webster and David McFerrin as the two fathers (both given charming, self-involved monologues), and Alex Mansoori’s regal calm as the almighty Stage Manager. If there was an unappealing voice in all the large cast, it passed me completely. Now if only they’d been singing something that needed to be sung.