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The Tender Land

Chicago Opera Theater

at Merle Reskin Theatre, through July 1


Ravinia Festival, June 24

Borrowing tunes from folk music is a time-honored tradition in classical music. Brahms did it, Dvorak did it, Ralph Vaughan Williams did it. And so did Virgil Thomson and his friend and contemporary Aaron Copland. (If you borrow from folk sources it's an imaginative utilization of our musical heritage; if you borrow from Puccini it's plagiarism.) Thomson was drawing on the tunes of a Missouri Baptist boyhood, but it's one of life's little ironies that Copland has become immortalized in the public mind as the quintessential composer of the American southwest. The Brooklyn-born (in 1900) and Paris-trained son of Russian immigrants, Copland barely made it west of New Jersey; he learned his old American folk songs in the studio. Many of Thomson's haunting tunes are the product of his own hymn-steeped imagination, but virtually every important component of a Copland piece came from elsewhere. He also used and reused his material in different formats: "Like this tune? Here it is again!"

Copland didn't set out to be a popular orchestrator and arranger of cowboy ballads and white spirituals. His original ambition was to be an important part of the avant-garde scene, but his version of pompous cacophony didn't sell. Then his 1936 El salon Mexico--in a new, accessible, folksy style--won him a publishing contract with Boosey & Hawkes, and his compositional course was set.

Copland and Thomson were a part of the same between-the-wars regionalist movement that propelled the painting careers of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Indeed, the scores for Appalachian Spring or Billy the Kid could make appropriate background music for an exhibit of Benton's work. But the regionalist movement ran out of gas with our involvement in World War II, and a new internationalist fashion took over. Copland--by then honored and earning a good living from his teaching, ballet suites, and high-class film scores--tried to move back into the avant-garde, taking up 12-tone composition just as it was being dropped by others closer to the cutting edge.

The Tender Land, written in 1954, was somewhat anachronistic in harking back to regionalism. Copland was trying to please both the academic snobs who scorned work such as Rodeo and the larger public that considered Rodeo High Art. He ended up pleasing neither.

The opera has both musical and dramatic problems. All of Copland's greatest hits, the works that landed him on "Top 100" classical radio stations, were originally intended as background--background for ballet, background for movies. He's the 20th-century American equivalent of Delibes. This isn't music you have to concentrate on; it doesn't have what it takes--style, immediacy, importance--to make it as foreground, though his gift for selecting effective bits of folk music and making his own use of them is very much on display. The show isn't a dramatic grabber either. Copland and his librettist, Horace Everett, set a Steinbeckian tale of ordinary people, but they're a bit too ordinary.

The Tender Land is a simple coming-of-age story, set somewhere in the rural heartland a couple of generations ago. It's the eve of Laurie Moss's high school graduation, and her family--mother, younger sister, and grandfather--are having a party to celebrate the event, a first in their family. Laurie wants to lead her own life, but her hypercautious grandfather is forever interfering. When a pair of young drifters, Martin and Top, come to the farm looking for work, Laurie and Martin find themselves attracted to each other; during the party they pledge their love. But Grandpa Moss finds them together, orders the men to leave at dawn, and ends the party. Laurie and Martin plot to run away together at daybreak, but Top convinces his buddy that he has nothing to offer the girl. When Laurie finds out they've left she follows them.

The first three-quarters of the opera are enjoyable on their own low-key terms, particularly the first-act finale, "The Promise of Living," a lyrical treatment of the old revival hymn "The Walls of Zion," and the stirring party dance number. Unfortunately the last scenes fall into triteness and banality and never find their way out.

Chicago Opera Theater's production is about the best presentation one is likely to find of this minor work. Soprano Rita Harvey made an attractive, sympathetic Laurie; her voice isn't large, but it's very pretty. Tenor Adam Klein, who sang well, was likable as Martin and believable in his anguish over leaving Laurie. Baritone Chris Owens made the most of the role of Top, the appetite-driven drifter with the "hakuna matata" philosophy.

The evening's best performances came from mezzo-soprano Dorothy Byrne as Ma Moss and veteran bass Arnold Voketaitis as Grandpa Moss, though in fairness they also had the most interesting and complex characters to play. Byrne, displaying a fine mezzo, was particularly effective as the mother who's torn between her own stunted hopes, her love for her daughter, and her fears. Voketaitis is in the twilight of his career, but this role made the most of his vocal and dramatic resources.

The smaller roles were all well filled, and the chorus sang and danced energetically in the big second-act party scene. There were a number of diction problems; Byrne and Owens dropped the most words, but only tenor Norman Engstrom, in the comprimario role of Mr. Splinters, was completely understandable.

Conductor Lawrence Rapchak, whose style is clearly better suited to this sort of romanticism than to Mozart, did a good job of leading his cast and orchestra. Carl Ratner's direction was fine in the second act, but the first act seemed underrehearsed and contained many awkward moments and movements. Bea Rashid's choreography mixed barn dancing with popular styles to entertaining effect, and Bill Bartelt's farm set captured the opera's time and place perfectly.

The biggest weakness in the production was Shifra Werch's costuming, particularly in the first act, when everything was much too clean and bright. The postman's coming was heralded by a cloud of dust, yet his shoes were shiny, his fedora just out of a bandbox, and his mailbag seemingly newly arrived from the J. Peterman catalog. The drifters were immaculately dressed, and Laurie's little sister, Beth, was introduced wearing spotless white Mary Janes, even though farm kids went barefoot in summer in those days. In a jarring inconsistency, Laurie wasn't wearing the gingham Martin notes when he first spots her, but a tight skirt that Grandpa hardly would have approved; the decolletage in her final costume was also inappropriate given her background and circumstances.

Even without the drawing power of opera stars and the social element of a gala, Tosca would be a sellout in a setting like Ravinia. For many people Puccini, particularly the Puccini of Tosca and Madame Butterfly, is the key to coming to know and like opera. His sympathetic heroines and their sad deaths, his tuneful scores and simple plotlines--all help to make his operas perennial favorites.

The familiarity of these shows can make it easy to overlook the composer's artistry. His scores are concise but complete; there's nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary--and nothing left out. He had a rare gift for melody, and he never set sad or angry words to oompah-pah music. His use of orchestral color was superb, and he knew how to sum up a character in a couple of measures: you know all you need to know about Tosca's passionate, jealous nature within a few minutes of her first entrance, even if you don't know a word of Italian.

All these qualities helped make Tosca an attractive choice for Ravinia's opening-night concert performance. Puccini's "shabby little shocker" dealing with love, lust, art, and violent death is relatively short (particularly when there's no need to have a second intermission to change the set), and it has lots of big tunes. It also makes a splendid star vehicle with which to justify the gala-benefit ticket prices.

Luciano Pavarotti was apparently legitimately ill this time, but Ravinia was fortunate in obtaining the services of tenor Richard Leech (the impresario who signs Pavarotti without also making sure a good replacement is available is remiss in his duties). Leech, who was reportedly getting over laryngitis, is short on subtlety and has a limited dramatic range, but he gave a ringing, crowd-pleasing account of this music, with big, powerful high notes that gave them their money's worth; his second-act cries of "Vittoria!" were thrilling.

Elizabeth Holleque was a convincing Tosca, though it would be hard to imagine her erupting in a jealous rage. She handled the considerable vocal demands of the role well and gave a heartrending account of "Vissi d'arte," but one had the sense that she was at her limit with nothing in reserve. She and Leech blended well together, and their third-act unison singing was especially fine.

Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus as Baron Scarpia was satisfyingly menacing without descending to blustering. His very Slavic-sounding vocal production was somewhat disconcerting in this role, and his Italian, while clear, was oddly pronounced with back-placed Ls. But he has a rich, powerful voice and made a fine villain.

Baritone David Evitts deserves special mention for conveying the essence of his character, Sacristan, with vocal coloring and a few well-chosen gestures. The other comprimarios--mostly from the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists--sang well.

There was no staging at all, aside from entrances and exits and some byplay between Leech and Holleque that made for some awkward moments, particularly at Scarpia's death. And concert version or no, something's missing when the characters in this opera fail to cross themselves at the appropriate times.

Zubin Mehta once again demonstrated his skill as an opera conductor, with a carefully considered, singer-friendly reading of the score. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in good form, particularly the brasses and cellos; principal cellist John Sharp's solo turn in act three was splendid. The only sour notes came from some of the violins, who were not together and out of tune for the introduction to the Sacristan's music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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