Our Town, Indiana University Opera Theater
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Thornton Wilder rebuffed requests from Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein for permission to make an opera out of Our Town, and one can see why. The addition of music would sweep away the 1938 play’s radically unadorned mode of discourse. The composer Ned Rorem seems to sense the danger. At a talk before the world premiere, the “transparency” of his opera (scored for small orchestra) was pointed up.
Rorem’s many songs demonstrate a capacity for wit and intimate expression that serve the 82-year-old composer well in Our Town, his second full-length opera. Wrong-note hymn harmonisations and a brief fantasy on Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” are among the diversions, but the prevailing musical mood is of gentle nostalgia. Languorous melodic lines or fragments, often with an unmistakable Americana flavour, interact in the orchestra, and the vocal parts engagingly follow suit. If Wilder’s play is to have music, Rorem’s is credible and often exquisite.
J.D. McClatchy’s libretto is generous in retaining Wilder’s own lines. Streamlining his source is part of the librettist’s job, but I missed the telling moment in Wilder when the audience sadly infers from a casual conversation that young Emily, whose wedding it just witnessed, will soon inhabit the town cemetery; the ghost of her mother-in-law simply announces her death. And Rorem does not differentiate Wilder’s unique Stage Manager sharply enough from the other characters.
The Indiana University School of Music mounts six opera productions annually and this one, cogently directed by Vincent J. Liotta, is thoroughly professional. C. David Higgins’s simple designs are enhanced by projections of the town. Anna Steenerson, a radiant high soprano, was a near-perfect Emily and Marc Schapman an outgoing, likable George. Eric McCluskey’s Stage Manager had a down-home appeal, Jamie Barton sang sonorously as Mrs Soames and Kevin Murphy brought a handsome baritone to Dr Gibbs. The conductor David Effron gave expressive shape to Rorem phrases. Our Town is a good opera, but it does not seem as funny or as poignant as the play.
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