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Performances

Image courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera
08 Jul 2018

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

A review by James Sohre

Above image courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera

 

Such “second stage” productions of smaller works have proven to be highly popular, sold-out accent pieces to the company’s three main stage offerings at the Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola.

The bucolic setting with a backdrop of rolling cornfields and a colorful sunset were the perfect environment for Adam Crinson’s evocative set design, a farm-within-a-farm. The imposing barn façade stage left and family house, right, made solid, earthy impressions while still incorporating some skeletal artistic elements that imbued them with a theatrical whimsy. A semi-circular white, wooden fence corralled the action and effectively defined the playing space on the plush lawn.

Nate Wheatley worked wonders with limited, sprawling resources to create an evocative lighting design that was an amalgam of even washes, variable colors, subtle isolated specials, and a blazing sunrise effect that visually underscored the heroine’s dawning awareness of her path in life. Heather Lesieur’s homey, lived in costumes proved just the right look to define individual characters. I wondered if the itinerant Martin mightn’t have looked a bit too clean cut and unrumpled, but there is no doubting that Ms. Lesieur’s choice set him apart as the attractive hero.

Octavio Cardenas directed the gentle doings of Laurie’s coming of age with a knowing eye and a sure hand. Mr. Cardenas used the expansive playing space to good advantage, creating varied, continually morphing tableaux in the party scene, all the while keeping a good focus on the smaller dramas playing out within it. Character relationships were clear, sincere, and focused. The director also used well-motivated blocking to move the action around so that all audience members in the semi-circular tiered seating were engaged. Choreographer Isaac Martin Lerner devised simple, cleverly synchronized steps and gestures for “Stomp Your Foot” that still allowed Lisa Hasson’s well-tutored chorus to sing with abandon and precision.

Conductor Joshua Horsch not only found all the colors of the blatant Americana in Copland’s folksy writing, but also elicited a shimmering serenity inherent in so much of the score’s luminous atmosphere. Thanks to the placement of monitors (hidden in wooden crates around the perimeter), Maestro Horsch maintained awesome control of his disparate forces, whether in the jaunty, playful story-telling passages, or the inexorable build-up of the unfolding “Promise of Living.” The instrumentalists rewarded him with a flavorful, idiomatic reading.

As did Glimmerglass a few seasons ago, DMMO chose to people its exceptional cast with soloists from its admirable Apprentice Program, meaning all the characters save the child Beth Moss (a delightful Camryn Overton) appeared to be the same average age, whether high school graduate or grandfather. The trade-off is that we were treated to ninety minutes of some continually impressive, fresh-voiced singing.

Lindsay Kate Brown used her rich, plummy mezzo to fine effect as a sympathetic Ma Moss. While Ma has affecting moments of melodious resignation, Ms. Brown also proved that her delivery could crackle and snap, as she confronted her defiant daughter, or falsely accused the drifters of a heinous crime. Rhys Lloyd Talbot’s orotund bass-baritone suggests maturity far beyond his years. Mr. Talbot opens his mouth and a rolling, oaken sound pours out with incredible ease, yet always with dramatic conviction and appropriate coloring. It is to the show’s credit that while both suggest older age with their gait and posture, neither resorts to caricature. Kudos too, to Brittany Crinson’s subtle hair and make-up design for avoiding this trap.

As the restless Laurie, Grace Kahl was perfectly matched to the role’s requirements, her poised, gleaming soprano effortlessly encompassing the musical and emotional gamut. Ms. Kahl instantly engages our hearts and ears with a radiant rendition of “The World So Wide,” and never lets go. Her journey to self-awareness is the reason for the piece and she never falters in her focused trajectory. As her love interest, Martin, tenor Remy Martin (yes!) is boyishly shy, and he suggests that and his indecision with a pleasing lyrical delivery that grows in scope and determination as his love for Laurie deepens. Both Mr. Martin and Ms. Kahl are so attractive and sing so persuasively that we buy into the love-at-first-sight cliché with willing disbelief.

Harry Greenleaf had a great time as the ne’er-do-well Top, his lustrous baritone somewhat belying his malintent. Mr. Greenleaf’s incisive banter with Martin/Martin resulted in some of the evening’s highlights. Tenor Adam Bradley made the most of his time as the postman Mr. Splinters, securely delivering many important expository and explanatory passages. Emily Triebold’s focused mezzo served Mrs. Splinter’s solo lines well. As Mr. and Mrs. Jenks, baritone Craig Juricka and Emily Kern enlivened the party scene with solid, appealing vocalizing.

At the premiere, the amplification of the singers, especially the men, was unfortunately not always up to DMMO’s usual high standard. This will no doubt be fully corrected for the second and final showing. Nevertheless, these occasional minor problems could not distract from the overall excellence of the experience. Operagoers even had the option of additionally booking a late afternoon tour of the famous farm, and/or an on-site dinner. For all, free popcorn preceded the show, pie and ice cream followed. How often does that happen?

But that’s Des Moines Metro Opera. Unique. Surprising. Engaging.

James Sohre

The Tender Land

Laurie Moss: Grace Kahl; Martin: Remy Martin; Grandpa Moss: Rhys Lloyd Talbot; Ma Moss: Lindsay Kate Brown; Beth Moss: Camryn Overton; Top: Harry Greenleaf; Mr. Splinters: Adam Bradley; Mrs. Splinters: Emily Triebold; Mr. Jenks: Craig Juricka; Mrs. Jenks: Emily Kern; Conductor: Joshua Horsch; Director: Octavio Cardenas; Set Design: Adam Crinson; Lighting Design: Nate Wheatley; Costume Design: Heather Lesieur; Make-up and Hair Design: Brittany Crinson for Elsen Associates; Choreographer: Isaac Martin Lerner; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson

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