The best operas teach us something about others and, more importantly, about ourselves - something that words alone, spoken or read, may not accomplish. John Steinbeck's stark tale Of Mice and Men certainly has plenty to say about the human condition, but this classic narrative can seem even more involving in Carlisle Floyd's faithful operatic version.
Floyd's Of Mice and Men is not just a deft adaptation. In its remarkable concision and focus, the opera cuts to the heart of the matter - our capacity to dream, our susceptibility to self-delusion and the rude pain of reality.
This 1970 work is receiving a visually and musically arresting production by the Washington Opera that shouldn't be missed. It delivers its powerful messages in subtle and large-scale ways.
Stage designer Richard Hudson emphasizes how George and Lennie, the two unlikely friends at the heart of the drama, are dwarfed by fate - he surrounds them with huge, threatening skies; massive old box cars and abandoned rails; high walls with bleakly uniform bunk beds lined up against them; looming farm machinery and implements that seem on the verge of devouring humans as readily as they churn up crops.
Everyone else in the opera also is trapped, in more ways than one. Hudson (with help from Rick Fisher's atmospheric lighting) makes us see this as vividly as Floyd's unmistakably American music makes us feel it.
Director Francesca Zambello inspired a performance that moves naturally, inexorably to that indelible moment when George must kill the mentally underdeveloped, unintentionally murderous Lennie. Zambello gives all the characters - with the exception of the stereotypical bad guy Curley - a three-dimensional quality. We learn, or at least suspect, things about each of the sad lives caught up in this slice of unfulfilled life.
On Thursday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Michael Hendrick gave a shattering portrayal of Lennie, his face a symphony of child-like expressions, his warm tenor voice rich in nuances. As he approached Curley's Wife (the opera's attention-starved catalyst), Hendrick's hands twitched uncontrollably at the thought of touching her soft hair.
And each time he made George tell him about the farm they would have someday, Hendrick knew just how to reveal the most endearing quality of Lennie. Everything about the tenor's movements, everything about the coloring in his vocalism, as he joined in excitedly to sing about the barn and the beautiful trees and the rabbits he could pet, touched the truth of anyone who ever has yearned and refused to give up.
Rod Nelman was nearly as satisfying in the role of George. His somewhat hollow, boomy bass left some of Floyd's most lyrical music cold, but Nelman's intensity as a singer and an actor paid off handsomely. The sight of him stroking Lennie's face at the end - one more soft, dead thing in a story filled with soft, dead things - lingered long.
Diane Alexander relished the role of Curley's Wife, decked out like a country-and-western sex kitten and using her well-focused soprano to colorful effect. Joseph Evans gave Curley a strong, appropriately biting vocal edge. Tony R. Dillon was sympathetic as the old ranch hand, Candy; Victor Benedetti's sturdy baritone and easy acting made Slim a strong presence. Justin Vickers tenderly phrased the Ballad Singer's haunting refrain.
The chorus did sturdy work. So did the orchestra, under Karen Keltner's sure, sensitive guidance. She made sure that each appearance of the indelible melody associated with George and Lennie's dream, whether at its most uplifting or darkened by spare harmonies, registered deeply.
What: Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men
Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues SE
When: 2 p.m. tomorrow; 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6 and 9; 7 p.m. Nov. 3 and 12
Tickets: $63 to $180