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Missy MAZZOLI (b. 1980)
Proving Up - opera to a libretto by Royce Vavrek based on a short story by Karen Russell. (2018)
Miles Zegner - Michael Slattery (tenor)
Mr Johannes “Pa” Zegner - John Moore (baritone)
Mrs Johannes “Ma” Zegner - Talise Trevigne (soprano)
Taller Zegner, Daughter - Abigail Nims (mezzo-soprano)
Littler Zegner, Daughter - Cree Carrico (soprano)
The Sodbuster - Andrew Harris (bass)
International Contemporary Ensemble/Christopher Rountree
An Opera Omaha production
rec. April 2018, Ware House Productions, Omaha, USA
Libretto included
PENTATONE PTC5186754 [79:48]

“Proving up means you stand your ground, you win your title – a hundred and sixty acres go from public to private. Clear and free, you hold it. Nobody can ever run you off. It’s home.” This is the American Dream as it’s pithily summarised in a key line from the Karen Russell short story ‘Proving Up’, which Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek have adapted for this riveting and unsettling one act opera.

Over the last decade Mazzoli has forged a formidable reputation in the United States, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that across the pond her stature as an operatic composer in particular is akin to that enjoyed by Thomas Adès in the UK. Her first major work in this form was Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt (2012), which was inspired by the extraordinary life of the eponymous Swiss writer, explorer and free spirit. This was followed by her hugely successful adaptation of Lars von Trier’s controversial 1996 Cannes Grand Prix winning film Breaking the Waves. Its Philadelphia premiere in 2016 attracted consistently stellar notices and in 2019 It received its first performance in Europe at that year’s Edinburgh Festival. Both these works concern central characters who by any measure would be considered outsiders; that there is something of a Brittenish streak in the undertow of Mazzoli and Vavrek’s stage work should therefore not be a surprise.

Proving Up ploughs a somewhat different furrow. As I perceive it, this single act work seems to concern the unattainable illusions that states and governments devise (deliberately or otherwise) to blind and mislead populations who may seem sensible on one level and completely gullible on another. Although both setting and story are unambiguously American (Royce Vavrek’s skilfully chiselled libretto is an adaptation of a Nebraska-set tale in Karen Russell’s 2014 collection ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’) the message is universal, the historical validity absolute.

Its dark underbelly is palpable from the early bars of the Prologue, a folksy ballad delivered with confidence and virility by the baritone John Moore as Pa, the Zegner family patriarch, a figure whose initial optimism swirls swiftly down the pan as the work unfolds and he is increasingly drawn to the bottle. Mazzoli’s textures and rhythms begin to unravel swiftly and disconcertingly. Folk fiddles and guitars are meshed in a bleak cognitive dissonance, punctured at one point by an other-worldly muted trumpet. Superficially this music seems to occupy some middle ground between Woody Guthrie and Percy Grainger, but the darkness seeps more sardonically into the first scene proper, Settlers’ Scar, a disconcerting treatment of the 1862 Homestead Act which laid down the rules of land ownership in desolate outposts like Nebraska for ‘dreamers’ in such simplistic, faux-optimistic terms that the majority of takers were always going to be hoodwinked. The scene comprises a characterful yet disarming chorus for all the members of the Zegner family, which breaks out into piquant little duets and trios. The ghostly presence of the Zegners’ deceased daughters dominates these ensembles. Mazzoli’s facility with tune and atmosphere is most accomplished – in a word, it’s Brittenish. Her brittle vocal lines sometimes evoke the work of David Lang (one of Mazzoli’s teachers); like Lang her music projects an ambition which completely transcends the chamber dimensions within which she is operating although she seems to draw on a considerably broader colour palette. The phrase Settler’s Scar alludes to the permanent scars or ‘brands’ on the palms of those that haul the plow, whilst the text of this scene also touches on “the final strangeness, the wink in the bureaucrats’ wall”, namely the necessity for each house of sod to include a glass window in order to meet the conditions for land ownership, something that seems so arbitrary and mundane on paper, but was clearly anything but in that place at that time. As it happens the Zegners have the only window in the area; it turns out it was obtained by theft, but nonetheless it’s Pa’s intention to share their good fortune with their nearest neighbours by delivering it to each of them in turn; in each family’s case it can then be temporarily installed before the land inspector arrives at each homestead to confirm that those families too have ‘proven up’.

In the next scene we are introduced in some detail to the Zegner family member who will come to dominate the rest of the story, the youngest son Miles, sensible and reliable beyond his years (and sober to boot). The tenor Michael Slattery is outstanding in this role, convincingly straddling the characterisation and vocal flexibility required for a ‘man/child’. It is Miles who is entrusted with the task of riding out to the neighbours with the precious pane of glass. The poor lad seems unable to talk to his brother Peter, or to his father (who seems permanently soused), or to his sisters (who are dead), so he confides in the horse Nore and most notably in this scene with Pig, the Zegner’s hog, gleefully evoked by grunting low winds. The open air gestures with which the scene opens rapidly turn claustrophobic.

This panel is followed by a flashback episode which describes how Pa ‘stole’ the window from the deserted stead of the closest neighbours, the Yothers family, whose rise and fall is described in Pa’s creepy soliloquy, which is aptly Grimesian in its masterly depiction of paranoia and disintegration. If the storyline seems grim, Mazzoli’s dexterity in arranging the instrumental forces at her disposal guarantees a sound picture which moves fluently between light and darkness.

By now the physical and psychological claustrophobia in the score is becoming more apparent. The fourth scene proper entitled ‘Strange Dreams’ is extraordinary; effectively a trio for Ma and the ghosts of her daughters, it is bathed in tremelando sounds which effect extreme weather, flapping laundry, flimsy roofs, ghostly imaginings and somnambulism. Mazzoli’s intense music superbly communicates Ma’s dread that “the inspector is a rumour” and that even if that wasn’t the case, any deed issued would be “as worthless as the acres without rain”. Nothing grows in this part of Nebraska – reality truly bites.

The two following scenes are the longest and together constitute the core of the opera; whilst the outcome is never anything but inevitable, the plot affords Mazzoli a wealth of opportunity for lyrical vocal lines and evocative ensemble writing. Nore at a Soft Canter details Miles ill-fated journey. The weather turns suddenly; it might be good for the crops but it isn’t for the horse and its rider. Miles imagines he sees the inspector in the distance; after Nore unseats him and bolts into the night, Miles experiences hallucinations (including a ‘visit’ from his sisters) and finds out in due course that the apparition was not the inspector, but something, or someone far worse. One example of Mazzoli’s superb orchestration is the introduction of a clutch of eerie harmonicas to this terrifying backdrop.

This sound is developed further at the outset of the big concluding scene where Miles meets his fate at the hands of the zombie-like Sodbuster, menacingly voiced by the virile bass of Andrew Harris. This entire panel is superbly scored; Harris’s domineering voice is accompanied by a measured glockenspiel. Miles’ sisters’ voices mesh in ethereal creepiness. Flecks of harpsichord convey the spirit of a long distant past. These textures in time collide in a sequence which oscillates between brutality and hopelessness. Michael Slattery’s contribution throughout is exceptional – quite apart from his first-class acting he has an affecting, flexible voice which can turn on a sixpence. The sounds and atmosphere in the closing bars of this scene come close to Britten’s in his setting of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting which forms the core of the Libera Me in the War Requiem. The opera concludes with a brief, devastating epilogue.

Proving Up is a superb achievement. Missy Mazzoli’s pacing throughout is unerring, her aural imagination unfettered by convention, her skill at writing for voices exceptional. Whilst I didn’t actually experience the visual dimension of this opera, I found it remarkably easy to paint the pictures in my head. Mazzoli has also clearly struck gold with her librettist Royce Vavrek who has accompanied her throughout her operatic journey; as part of my prep for this review I read Karen Russell’s eloquently crafted story – Vavrek has transcribed it with real panache; he has such an easy way with pulse and emphasis. Christopher Rountree leads the International Contemporary Ensemble in a performance of boundless commitment and authority. Pentatone’s recording is detailed and unencumbered by intrusive stage effects; Proving Up makes for a compelling listen and demands uninterrupted attention. It certainly rewards repetition.

In her illuminating booklet note, Mazzoli admits that on receiving the initial commission from Washington National Opera she urgently sought a slice of Americana which resonated with the 2017 zeitgeist. Whilst her final selection may indeed inhabit a specifically American landscape and address the ambiguous, elusive nature of what we rather lazily refer to as the ‘American Dream’, this opera cuts far more deeply and strikes a universal chord. If those seeking or holding power promise something often enough, many will be psychologically incapable of disbelieving them. If Proving Up had been conceived In the UK, it would surely have been rebranded with the title ‘Levelling Up’.

Richard Hanlon

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