Ned ROREM (b. 1923)
Our Town, An Opera in Three Acts (2005) [123:25]
Libretto by J D McClatchy after the play by Thornton Wilder
Stage Manager - Matthew DiBattista; Emily Webb - Margot Rood; George Gibbs - Brendan Buckley; Dr. Gibbs - Donald Wilkinson; Mrs. Gibbs - Krista River; Mr. Webb - David Kravitz; Mrs. Webb - Angela Gooch; Mrs. Soames - Glorivy Arroyo; Simon Stimson - Stanley Wilson.
Monadnock Music/Gil Rose
rec. 2013, Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, North Andover,
English libretto included
NEW WORLD RECORDS 807902 [55:00 + 68:25]
Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938 for his play Our Town. The town in question is the fictional Grover’s Corners in Sutton County, New Hampshire. However, the physical inspiration came from the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, situated near to the MacDowell Colony where Wilder wrote the pay. Thus, it’s highly appropriate that the cover image of this CD set is Gregorio Prestopino’s painting Main Street Peterborough 1935. It’s even more appropriate that this first recording of the opera should be made by Monadnock Music since this organisation is based in Peterborough and its surrounding area. The play was turned into a 1940 film by Sol Lesser for which Aaron Copland wrote a highly evocative score.
The invaluable booklet includes a comprehensive essay from the composer and Rorem pupil, Daron Hagen. In it he traces the background to Rorem’s composition, explaining that an earlier attempt – by Rudolf Bing in 1951 – to have the play turned into an opera for which Copland would write the music was vetoed by Wilder, who was notoriously cagey about musical settings of his plays. After his death his estate softened the line somewhat and J D McClatchy, a highly experienced librettist, was able to secure agreement to fashion an operatic libretto out of the play. It seems that Daron Hagen played some part in McClatchy’s selection of Ned Rorem to write the music. The opera received its first performance at Indiana University, the lead commissioner, in February 2006. Designed as a chamber opera, Hagen says that Our Town is best suited to young voices.
One of the first things that struck me when I listened to this opera was the lightness of the orchestral scoring. I’m not quite sure of the scoring but it sounds to me as if no more than woodwind, a trumpet, piano and a small band of strings is involved. Certainly, there’s a complete absence of heavy brass and percussion. This scoring imparts a transparency and an outdoor feel to the music. Another striking feature is that this is a dialogue opera. For most of the time there are no arias – except for three or four aria-like solos in the final act – and the chorus is mainly restricted to the singing of hymns, as the church choir, at certain key points in the score. Otherwise, the opera takes the form of conversations between various characters. In that regard it’s a huge help that Rorem, who is such an experienced opera and song composer, has written vocal music that so naturally follows speech patterns.
Before considering the performance, it may be appropriate to say a little about the action of the opera. Wilder’s play is, if you will, a play within a play in the sense that the action takes place in the theatre. Within this scenario the Stage Manager has a pivotal role. He guides the audience through the action, helping us get acquainted with Grover’s Corners and with some of its leading inhabitants. Along the way he assumes in this opera version one or two important small roles such as Mr Morgan, the drug store proprietor, and the Minster who marries Emily and George. All the action takes place in Grover’s Corners. In Act I it is 1901. We meet – on the introduction of the Stage Manager – two neighbouring families: the Gibbs family and the Webbs. Dr Gibbs is the town doctor while Mr Webb edits the newspaper. Their respective children, George and Emily, are schoolfriends. She’s the academically conscientious one while he’s more interested in playing baseball but already you can tell there’s a burgeoning attraction. Act I moves forward to 1904 and our intuition about a burgeoning attraction was correct: George and Emily are about to get married, though they seem very young – George’s age is never stated but in Act III we learn that Emily was 13 in February 1900. Within the second Act there’s a flashback to 1902 and the point at which it becomes clear that Emily and George are destined for each other after she points out flaws in his behaviour and he thanks her for it. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, on the wedding day itself the very young bride and groom have a last-minute wobble of apprehension but they go through with the ceremony and by the time the wedding is over at the end of the act they are happy together.
Act III takes on a darker hue. It is 1913 and we at the town cemetery for a funeral. It’s Emily’s funeral; she has died giving birth to her second child. Waiting, invisibly, at the graveyard are some of the town’s inhabitants who have died since the wedding nine years ago: George’s mother, Mrs Soames and the alcoholic church choirmaster, Simon Stimson who took his own life. After her body has been laid in the ground Emily joins them and immediately conceives a desire to go back to her life. Despite warnings she does so and she goes back to be part of – and at the same time to observe – her 13th birthday. Despite the surface happiness of the birthday morning she’s distressed that her parents and George are so caught up in the cares of the day. She exclaims “I didn’t realise. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” The Stage Manager takes her back to rejoin the Dead before he brings the story to an end.
Those who are familiar with the play or the film will realise from this brief outline that McClatchy’s libretto compresses some of Wilder’s action and characters. However, that’s entirely logical and practical in the context of an operatic version and the libretto seems to me to hang together very convincingly. The music enhances the words in two ways. Firstly, the sung lines, often almost parlando in style, fit the words like a glove. Secondly, the orchestral accompaniment is consistently full of interest, either reinforcing a point that is being made – or has just been made – verbally, or else providing illuminating illustrative detail. The orchestral writing doesn’t draw attention to itself in an ostentatious fashion but on the other hand it consistently enriches the action. The harmonic language is piquant and full of interest while the vocal lines always flow very naturally.
Like Wilder, Rorem succeeds, I think, in giving us a drama on two levels. Superficially, at least in the first two acts, we get a homely vision of small town America in a much more innocent age. However, there are currents beneath the surface. For instance, the drink problem of Simon Stimson is only manifest twice during the first two acts – in other words, while he’s still alive – but Dr. Gibbs says of him “Some people ain’t made for small-town life.” Later, in Act III, the dead Stimson makes clear his bitterness towards those who shunned him in life. It’s in this third Act that we see the flip side of homely Grover’s Corners. Emily realises that everyone is so wrapped up in their individual routines and little worlds that they can’t and don’t make the time to savour the people and things around them while they have them there. If Wilder thought that was true when he was writing 80 years ago, what would he say of 21st century life?
So, we have a tautly dramatic scenario and fine, accessible music combining to make a thoughtful and thought-provoking whole. What of the performance? The first thing on which to comment is the orchestral accompaniment. I think I’m right in saying that the players of Monadnock Music are not a year-round ensemble but, rather, that they come together for a summer season each year in the area round Peterborough New Hampshire. They may not be a permanent ensemble but on this recording, they play like one, offering crisp, stylish playing that’s either tight as a drum or lyrically expansive according to the demands of the score. Their playing is impresive.
Several, in fact most, of the singers don’t sound to me to have quite the young voices to which Daron Hagen says the music is well-suited but to be honest I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, especially for a recording. What one might lose in terms of youthful freshness one gains in terms of vocal experience and tone quality. Actually, there is one singer who sounds quite young – I don’t know his actual age. That’s tenor Brendan Buckley. He sounds very credibly like the very young man he’s portraying but the trouble is his voice sounds too young. His voice lacks body and variety of tonal colour. As a singer/actor he does well in the role but, ideally, I would have preferred a rather fuller voice.
The two leading roles are very well taken. Tenor Matthew DiBattista is characterful in the demanding role of the Stage Manager and he possesses a pleasing, mature voice. I found his portrayal very convincing and enjoyed his singing a lot. He does very well throughout but shines most brightly in the three aria-like extended solos that he has in Act III. Margot Rood is convincing as Emily Webb. This must be a difficult role to deliver because the singer has to portray Emily as a schoolgirl of about 13 years old and also, in Act III, a woman of twice that age. (Incidentally, there isn’t a comparable age-range problem for the character of George because the only time he sings in Act III he’s still in the character of a young boy.) Rorem has given his principal soprano a demanding role with a tessitura that’s often very challenging. Miss Rood copes with the demands of the role very well. She gives a moving account of Emily’s main aria – indeed, the main aria in the opera – ‘Take me back’, near the end of Act III. Once or twice I detected a slight edge to her tone but this is in keeping with the youth of her character so it’s perfectly in order, I think. The remainder of the cast all do very well with particular plaudits for Krista River as Mrs. Gibb and Donald Wilkinson as her husband, the doctor. Without exception the singers’ diction is crystal clear and that’s vital in a work such as this.
Gil Rose is well known as a highly effective champion of recent American music, especially with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (review ~ review) . I’ve encountered him previously as the excellent conductor of a recording of Barber’s Vanessa, so I know he’s a fine opera conductor (review). In the case of the Barber opera I knew the piece already so I had a yardstick against which I could judge his conducting. Here I’m faced with a score that is completely new to me. However, at all times the ensemble seems tight and well-focused and I found the pacing of the music – and of the drama – sympathetic and convincing at all times.
I should say a word of two about New World’s presentation. The booklet is a model of its kind. As I’ve already said, Daron Hagen’s essay is comprehensive and evidences a deep knowledge of the score and of Rorem’s music in general. There’s also a short note by the composer himself, a synopsis of the action, the libretto – very clearly laid out – and biographies of all the principals. The recording itself, made under studio conditions, is a bit close for my taste; I had to adjust the volume downwards a little and even then the singers and players are a bit too close. The recording seems a bit hemmed in; I would have liked a greater sense of space around the voices and instruments. On the other hand, the recording has the virtue of great clarity; you won’t miss a thing.
I’ve admired Ned Rorem’s orchestral, choral and solo song compositions for many years. I’m embarrassed to say, though, that this is the first time I’ve encountered one of his operas. In my defence, however, I believe that only one other opera, Miss Julie, has so far been recorded (Albany 761/2). I’m delighted to have heard at last an example of his operatic output and it was worth the wait: I found Our Town most rewarding.
Given that this great American composer is now in his nineties I fear that Our Town is likely to be his last opera. If so, he’s finished his operatic career on a high note. This is an engaging, accessible and very rewarding score and Gil Rose and his colleagues have done it and the composer proud with this committed first recording. This is an important release.