Met gives impressive launch to opera `American Tragedy'

Music Review

December 11, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- The search for the next great American opera remains an elusive one.

The latest candidate, Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, couldn't have asked for a better start - a star-packed premiere by the Metropolitan Opera, which commissions so few new works that any fresh venture there is guaranteed considerable attention. Not to mention the pressure of high expectations.

If this piece, based on the 1925 Theodore Dreiser novel, does not meet all those expectations, it offers such an attention-holding mix of theatrical strength and skillful music that it can hardly be dismissed lightly. There's an impressive integrity to the opera, and that counts for a lot.

The plot, which inspired the memorable 1951 film A Place in the Sun, certainly hasn't lost any of its relevance.

There's something all too familiar about the story of the strangely attractive anti-hero, Clyde Griffiths, grasping at anything he desires, the consequences be damned, in an amoral distortion of the American Dream. In dispensing with his pregnant girlfriend so he can move several rungs up the social ladder in a single bound, Clyde sacrifices his soul and his life.

Dreiser needed nearly 900 pages to tell the story. Picker's able librettist, Gene Scheer, trims the material down to a workable two-act vehicle that takes roughly three hours to unfold on stage. It still seems a little too eventful. In common with several recent operas, this one is loaded with dialogue and scene changes.

The Met's striking, tri-level production, with direction by Francesca Zambello and sets by Adrianne Lobel, allows those changes to be made seamlessly. (The three staging levels often help to underline the social class-consciousness in the story line.)

The inventive stagecraft achieves a cinematic quality, which, unfortunately, points up the cinematic aspects of Picker's score. Too often, it sounds like good movie music rather than a fully fleshed-out opera.

Part of the problem is that we don't get enough real insight into who these characters are. There just isn't time, what with all the plot details to get through. Some scenes last just a few minutes, imparting information but little depth. A few others, like the murder trial in Act 2, seem endless, dry, unnecessary.

In the end, it's hard to glean from the opera the most crucial information - what motivates and distorts Clyde. More compelling, deeper music might have revealed the various kernels of ugly truths about the man. When he heads to the electric chair in the finale, he's just about as sympathetic as in the first scene, making the right moves to get his rich, factory-owning uncle's attention.

But the composer understands how to write for the voice and, just as important, how to write for an orchestra so that the voices are never swamped. If only he had an unmistakable voice of his own, a distinctive musical language that carved original paths, struck unusual chords. An American Tragedy falls effectively, but not quite memorably, on the ear.

Picker, who enjoyed remarkable success with his first opera, Emmeline, in 1996, composes in a neo-romantic, non-threatening style that makes him an understandable choice for the Met, not exactly a hotbed of avant-garde adventure.

Writing audience-friendly music is no crime, and this is some of the most audience-friendly music to come around.

And it's being terrifically performed in this production, which has five more performances through Dec. 28.

Nathan Gunn's physical magnetism and firm, expressive baritone make him an ideal Clyde. As Roberta, the factory worker who falls too hard for Clyde, Patricia Racette uses her warm soprano and subtle acting skills tellingly. Susan Graham's luscious mezzo finds a vivid outlet in the role of Sondra, the upper-crust woman who fatefully catches Clyde's eye.

Dolora Zajick, as Clyde's religious mother, nearly steals the opera in the last act with startling tonal richness and superbly sculpted phrasing. Picker lavished some of his most emotional music on this tormented character, and Zajick makes it soar. The rest of this true ensemble cast is uniformly appealing.

In conductor James Conlon, the production enjoys another impressive asset. His evident appreciation for the finer details in the scoring yields brilliant playing by the Met's heralded orchestra.

Zambello's assured touch is everywhere in the staging, except during the fateful canoe trip of Clyde and Roberta. It starts grippingly, with the couple isolated visually in the middle of the three levels of the stage, but after Roberta falls out of the boat and her offstage cries for help fade, do we really need to see her drowned body spinning away in the lake?

All things considered, Picker's opera offers more than many a new work, in subject matter and craftsmanship. With some pruning, tightening and intensifying, it might develop the edge it needs to reveal the dark, stark tragedy in An American Tragedy.

For tickets to remaining performances, call the Metropolitan Opera box office, 212-362-6000.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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