‘Our Town’ delivers, in the end
July 30, 2006
That icon of American theater, “Our Town,” would seem to make an ideal vehicle for opera. It’s about inner thoughts and emotions, which music expresses well, and the story is familiar enough that a composer can add his own glosses without creating confusion. It also has a dramatic stroke of genius in the character of the Stage Manager, who functions as narrator and participates in scenes.Aspen Opera Theater, which co-commissioned it, debuted its production of the new opera, “Our Town,” Saturday night at Wheeler Opera House; it continues tonight and Wednesday. Composer Ned Rorem and librettist J.D. McClatchy have retained the feeling and gentle theatricality of Thornton Wilder’s play, and director Edward Berkeley honors the nearly bare-stage setting.In Rorem’s music, the characters breathe and feel real as they sing. “Our Town” makes an effective piece of musical theater. Rorem uses music to set scenes effectively and underline the emotional content of what’s happening onstage. McClatchy’s libretto turns Wilder’s words into verse without losing its plain-spoken nature. But Rorem’s music for the singers gives them little to soar with, especially in the first act. Overall, it’s grateful to the ears, neither too simple nor harshly dissonant.What it isn’t is great opera. Great opera opens up key moments to make big statements through musical means. That’s what arias, duets and ensembles are all about. “Our Town” finally does that in a riveting third act. But most of what precedes that doesn’t stretch musically. What goes on in the orchestra is endlessly fascinating, but it takes a while for the singers to get something to sink their teeth into.Things start to rev up in the second act, but not until the third act does a character’s singing line unfurl into a full-scale aria, and it’s a good one. In the final scene, Emily sings a piece centering on the phrase “Goodbye, world,” a long ode to paying attention to every moment in life. Emily was gorgeously sung by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, who triumphed last year in the title role of Cunning Little Vixen.”Our Town” needs more than a great third act to be as good an opera and the original is a play. Too bad, because Rorem writes wonderful art songs, and they are idiomatically American. Here he seems to have pinned back his romantic impulses in order to keep the plot moving forward. Some of the Stage Manager’s exposition is presented as supertitles above the stage, rather than having the singer recount it all, a clever use of a convention of modern opera to keep things moving. But it takes away the possibility of a truly operatic introduction. Tonio’s prelude “Si puo?” in Pagliacci could have been the model for an American turn for the Stage Manager.As the Stage Manager, Jason Collins gets to employ his resonant tenor in a few phrases here and there, but mostly his music keeps the wheels turning rather than opening up into something he can run with.Among several missed opportunities in the first act, the moment when Emily tries to get her mother to tell her she’s pretty could have blossomed into a lovely duet, but the music does not transport, it just trundles along. Later, there’s a chance for a great love duet between George and Emily, each longing for the other through their respective bedroom windows, but it’s over before it gets going.Which is not to say that Rorem doesn’t use music effectively. There are moments to appreciate. The wedding ends with a reference to Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” which gets ironic musical variations in Rorem’s score. The chorus sings out of tune to impersonate a bad church ensemble. And right at the start, the chorus forms up to sing a hymn, “O God, our help in ages past.” As does Emily’s third-act aria later, it goes right to the main point of the drama, that time zips past without us paying close enough attention. At the end of each line, the orchestra injects a modernist chord or phrase. There is a charming second act duet between a 17-year-old Emily and the boy who would become her husband, George Gibbs, winningly sung by Matthew-Patrick Morris. The scene is a flashback from the midst of the their wedding day. Emily criticizes George, who surprises himself by reacting with humility. They go into the soda shop and court each other. The text and the music reflect their own interior monologues, and it’s a lovely moment because Rorem takes the time to let it develop.The whole wedding scene is about their own thoughts, too. Against the church chorus singing a hymn, Emily and George sing of their nervousness and how they just want to get out of there. But they go through with the wedding, and the scene ends as they race offstage and up the aisles of the theater.The third act has by far the strongest music. Rorem paints with his music how the dead people in the Grover’s Corners cemetery remain distant from life even as they care about Emily, who has died in childbirth. Emily cajoles the Stage Manager into letting her re-experience one day in her life, but she becomes frantic when the living seem not to notice the little things that are so tragically important to her.Here the emotions are so strong that Rorem can’t resist letting the music soar. Again, he gives it time to become what it wants to be. The final 20 minutes reach a powerful climax, and then it all recedes, like life. The ending is hauntingly beautiful.Conductor David Zinman drew delicately colorful sounds from the orchestra. The pace felt right, and the singers’ attention to the words almost made supertitles unnecessary. This cast, conductor and orchestra gave the piece a first-rate performance. If only the score were all as good as the at third act.Harvey Steiman’s weekly commentary about the Aspen Music Festival is founded in 13 years of attendance and a background as a professional critic.