An American Tragedy, Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, New York – review

Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy, which received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005 to tepid reviews, has been given another chance at Glimmerglass, whose artistic general and artistic director, Francesca Zambello, directed the Met’s production. Based on the Theodore Dreiser classic from 1925, the work stands in that questionable line of American operas that start with a long and complex novel, extract the plot, leave most of the larger issues behind and hope that with music the thing will fly. The plot here centres on young Clyde Griffiths, who takes a job as a foreman in his uncle’s factory, impregnates a worker named Roberta, attracts the more socially prominent and desirable Sondra and finds he has a dilemma. It’s all so predictable, not least Roberta’s desperate pleas that Clyde marry her.

Musically it fails to stir as well. Along with fleeting allusions to music of the 1920s, there is a lot of Hollywood in the score but not much melody. Orchestra writing is hyperactive but often signifies little. A church scene is effective in which Clyde, Sondra and other congregants sing a hymn spiced with wrong notes while Roberta surreptitiously turns up. But generally the opera simply marches to its grim conclusion, which finds Clyde in the electric chair for causing Roberta’s drowning, despite insisting it was accidental. Only his mother remains loyal, and if her references to religious faith seem a little odd, it’s because approximately 18 minutes at the start of the opera establishing, among other things, Clyde as a minister’s son are cut in Picker’s revision.

Glimmerglass gives the work a good production by Peter Kazaras in which the love triangle is sometimes graphically represented with Sondra on one side of the stage, Roberta on the other and Clyde in between. Alexander Dodge’s sets depict wrought-iron stairs and platforms while a multitude of shirts (the factory’s product) dangle from above. George Manahan conducts with authority, but the playing sometimes sounded fuzzy. Members of Glimmerglass’s young artists programme perform impressively, especially tenor Christian Bowers who conveys the anguish of Clyde’s situation. Vanessa Isiguen sings Roberta with a strong, well rounded soprano, and Cynthia Cook is a vocally and visually alluring Sondra. The veteran Patricia Schuman is Clyde’s mother. Her stunned conclusion, after Clyde admits he could have saved Roberta, that it was murder after all, provides one of the opera’s few touching moments.

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