According to conventional wisdom, Aaron Copland's only full-length opera, The Tender Land, just doesn't cut it. Too static. Too much like one of his Americana ballets, only with words. Not enough story, character development, or truly gripping drama. A very unsatisfying ending.
Well, conventional wisdom has been known to be wrong before, and it's wrong in this case. If you don't believe me, just check out Opera Vivente's affecting presentation of the piece. No, you won't come away thinking The Tender Land deserves to be ranked alongside La Boheme, but you're likely to end up with a new - or renewed - appreciation for Copland.
Operas don't have to be on a large, hit-you-on-the-head scale to hold the attention. In the early 1950s, Copland and his librettist, Erik Johns (using the pen name Horace Everett), created an intimate and interesting slice of life in the Depression-era American Midwest. It's a simple story that spans a single day and night and unfolds entirely at a farmhouse.
The messages in the story are simple, too: Don't fence in your feelings or your dreams, and don't fence in the feelings and dreams of those you care about; don't expect love to be real or lasting the first time around, but don't be afraid to fall for it anyway; don't believe everything bad you hear about someone you don't really know.
What makes The Tender Land work is the clarity, beauty and honesty of Copland's music, qualities that come through strongly in the Opera Vivente production at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. The chamber version of the original orchestration (idiomatically prepared in 1985 by Murray Sidlin and approved by Copland) enhances the score's directness without any great loss of warmth.
On Sunday afternoon, conductor Danail Rachev shaped that score tellingly, revealing particular appreciation for its gentlest, most introspective moments. Occasional raggedness aside, the orchestra had an effective presence. (Without a pit for the musicians, that presence was sometimes achieved at the expense of covering the voices onstage.)
Even with one weak vocal link in the cast, the performance had admirable solidity; this was one of the company's most cohesive efforts. As the wistful Laurie, wondering about "the world so wide" on the eve of her high school graduation, soprano Elizabeth Racheva offered a bright, well-focused tone, exemplary diction and persuasive acting. Madeleine Gray tapped the sympathetic, Ma Joad-like features of Ma Moss, who is afraid of letting Laurie slip into adulthood, and used her powerful mezzo compellingly.
As Top, one of the two drifters who shake up the routine of the Moss farm, baritone Paul Hindemith was vocally and theatrically sturdy. As Martin, the drifter who stirs and breaks Laurie's heart, Kerry Lee Jennings acted and sang so ardently that it was almost possible not to notice that the tenor was unable to fulfill the role's upper-register requirements.
Bass-baritone Christopher Austin did vivid work as the overly protective Grandpa Moss. Emily Noel couldn't really pass as Laurie's doll-hugging younger sister, but proved accomplished at conveying the girl's shaken emotions.
John Bowen's assured direction kept the action tightly focused. A basic set designed by Thom Bumblauskas does a neat, atmospheric job, complemented by Lee Brandhorst's lighting and Mary Bova's costumes. Even the church hall where the production takes place seems attuned to the opera - all those exposed, barn-like wooden beams somehow add to the feeling of vintage, rural America.
What: The Tender Land
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday
Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.
Admission: $20 to $36