A glance at the above cast list might prove to be confusing. Here real people are juxtaposed with characters from a play. What kind of opera is this? A finely crafted, cleverly inventive one. Librettist John Shoptaw has combined a play (Our American Cousin by Tom Taylor, 1851) and real history (the assassination of President Lincoln, April 14, 1865). The assassination is told from the perspective of the actors performing the play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. Backstage and audience realities alternate with (decidedly unfunny and rather too many) scenes from the play. Composer Eric Sawyer states: “In an opera of colliding realities I sought music that would both distinguish and connect the comic play that supplied the setting of Lincoln’s assassination and the historical drama of that tragic event. The musical background springs from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address given only a few weeks before: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us strive…to bind up the nation’s wounds.’ The farcical play connects with these words in a surprising way: as peace can come only from forgiveness, the spirits of theater audience can be lifted only through forgetting the strife of war and giving their cares over to a harmless comedy.”
Does such a scheme work? Yes, quite well. The text works the best. It could well be performed as a play. The music is entirely at the service of the music, only breaking into true prominence in the lovely choral effusions (Women, Amputees, Freedmen, Nurses, Businessmen) who comment on the story like a Greek chorus. The plot moves along in what would in the 19th Century have been a succession of recitatives and arias, but here the recitatives are more arioso in style, sometimes in the play as spoken dialog; the arias, less tuneful than might have been, bending more in service of the text.
Cousin was first performed in concert, March 31, 2007 (recorded April 1 and 2) by The Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Its first stage performance was on June 20, 2008 at the Academy of Music Theater, Northampton, Massachusetts, again with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The recording is effective, though I am not entirely happy with the “collegiate glee club” singing of the Amherst folk. Theirs is a beautiful sound, but not right for the seriousness of the opera.
Particularly effective is mezzo-soprano Baty, a vocally and interpretively commanding presence as the principal actress of the company. Hers is a rich voice, well placed and solid through the range. Just as strong and commanding is the forceful Booth and Tom O’Toole. There is plenty of serious intent in his characterization, strongly sung. Wilkinson’s baritone sounds more tenortone, lacking in the dignity and seriousness that one expects from Lincoln. Gooch’s Mary Lincoln sounds appropriately unpleasant and demented. The other members of the acting troop (Schneider, Engebreth, Poling, Edwards, Hillarie O’Toole) work well with their characters’ personas, doing what they can with the limp text of their play. Schneider and Engebreth deserves extra praise for their vital, expressive singing as the actors Hawk and Matthews. There’s nothing to recommend in Kamalic’s too youthful Dr. Leale, sounding like a tenor pressed into service as a baritone.
An afterthought: I can’t help thinking the opera would be even more effective and build with more cumulative power if it were shorter and performed in one act. Particularly the climactic assassination and the audience’s immediate response need to be shortened and intensified. In its present state it falls flat. The later relating of the reactions to the terrible deed—particularly the aria of Laura Keene (Baty) and her mystic encounter with the Apparition of the dead Lincoln—really work well. The final audience chorus, ‘Funny, how hard it is to remember,’ draws the opera to a touching conclusion. Don’t get me wrong. I really like this opera and wish it well. But it might be even better if revised. A libretto in English is included.
© 2009 Charles H. Parsons