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Our Town (opera)

More of a tone poem than an opera, carrying the modalities of Thornton Wilder's small town mileau, Our Town comes to us as a slice of life of a bygone era. For all its liturgical presumptions (the bookended funeral), neither the Reality that Wilder claimed as his baseline (despite the personifications of the spirits in the cemetary), nor the somber philosophic point of view, would, in today's world of spiritual pluralism, hold up to the universal truths sought by the author and proclaimed by his admirers. Of course, not being such does not diminish the temporal truths that Wilder presents.

Kevin Langan as Dr. Gibbs and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs
Kevin Langan as Dr. Gibbs
and Phyllis Pancella as Mrs. Gibbs
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Yet, in the operatic adaptation of this classic play, the potential of more expansive possibilities abounded (both Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein approached Wilder), but what we have is a nearly literal translation of the stage play, accompanied by harmonic references from a different era.

Adaptation from one genre to another is consistenly misunderstood, often by those who are creating the hybrid. In the case of Our Town, a promising project produced a predictable result.

According to J. D. McClatchy, the librettist for the Wilder family-sanctioned version (music by Ned Rorem), "My task, as librettist, was to condense the play's length while preserving its shape and tone. Because musical time is so much longer than dramatic time, many of the play's scenes had to be shortened and characters eliminated. ..."

True enough, but this is most effectively accomplished by arias that reveal the deeper motivations that are usually not delivered in the dialogue.

John Hancock as Mr. Webb, Sally Wolf as Mrs. Webb, and Vale Rideout as Stage Manager
John Hancock as Mr. Webb,
Sally Wolf as Mrs. Webb,
and Vale Rideout as Stage Manager
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
McClatchy continues: "There is a certain risk—one accepted by Mozart and Verdi and Puccini—when adapting any famous play into an opera. Audiences familiar with the original arrive at the theater with certain preconceptions and expectations. Lines that have passed into legend have to be preserved, beloved moments can't be omitted. One wants to keep the filigree of daily life that Wilder so carefully concocted—from the fussy coziness of family routines to the small-town philistinism—and still drive towards the loneliness that underlies all the chatter, the mortality the haunts nostalgia. Wilder once said that his play set out to capture "not verisimilitude but reality," and it seemed to me, while working on this libretto, that I could afford to trim and re-arrange some text if I could maintain the play's "reality"—its exuberant claims on small moments, its wise allegory of experience and isolation, its heartbreaking portrayal of our life on earth. As an opera, Our Town can again instill in an audience the wonder of watching the human dilemma unfold, now set to a music that so beautifully carries its transcendent joy and grief."1

But opera adapted from the theatre is not theatre put to music any more than a ballet adapted from the theatre is a literal retelling of the story. Different genres dictate different forms. A Midsummer-Night's Dream is a perfect example, since it orginated in the theatre, and was adapted to both opera and ballet. The key element of the adaptations of the Bard's wonderful fantasy is that they both carry the emotional arc of the original—after all, that is what produces a catharsis congruent to the original—not the "shape and tone," as if the narrative were the chief conveyance, instead of the audience's journey.

The choir and Emily Webb (Anna Christy
The choir and
Emily Webb (Anna Christy
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Another reason that Our Town, the opera, does not measure up to the original? Look to whom McClatchy points in the above quote: Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. What do they all have in common? Among other things, MELODY and HUMOR, even in tragic circumstances. Post-modern classical music is not melodic, at least by operatic standards. If anything, it more closely resembles cinematic soundtracks—atmospheric and mercurial—than anything that would be considered classical in the 18th, 19th, and 20th century (pre-Stravinsky), the latter time period being when the original play is set.

Unlike Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, whose premiere was accompanied by riots in 1913, this opera is not a new, revolutionary work, but an adaptation of a play set a decade earlier. Why, instead of hearing the sentiments of the early 20th century expressed to music from this actual period (before Stravinsky's radical departure), do the lyrics sound like early 20th-century dialogue set to the dissonant music of late 20th century? Wilder surrounded himself with music. Why would the pre-Stravinsky melodies to which he listened not be present here?

William Ferguson as George Gibbs and Anna Christy as Emily Webb
William Ferguson as George Gibbs
and Anna Christy as Emily Webb
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave." Echoing this common experience of Our Town at the hands of literal directors, McClatchy's choices, including the funeral, set a morbid tone throughout, rarely moving beyond the monotone of ennui (and when it does, it does so as much by the acting as any fleeting musical lilt), to express the moments of lightheartedness of love and other joyous events, even in the ritualistic and morally confined life of Grover's Corners. (The Russians should know; they've seen an abundance of misguided handwringing in Chekhov, who considered most of his work comedic.)

But while McClathy describes the play in terms of "the loneliness that underlies all the chatter," "the mortality the haunts nostalgia," and "the heartbreaking portrayal of our life on earth," the dead do not feel this way at all. The redemption that they offer in the third act transcends this. For the opera (or the play) to achieve universality, it must be the dead—who live in the present, in the presence of eternity—that deliver it, not the living, who dwell in the past.

All that said, in its present form, the storyline is effectively reduced from the original to give the score its due, and the cast genuinely expresses the interconnectedness of the characters in both their acting and fine vocal work, delivering Rorem and McClatchy's tone poem with gusto.

Central City Opera's Our Town runs through July 28th in repertory with The Barber of Seville, followed by Showboat, at the Buell Theatre, August 6th through 11th. For tickets: 303-292-6700 or centralcityopera.org.

Bob Bows

Footnote:
1 http://www.thorntonwilder.com/a-note-by-the-librettist.html.

 

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