NORTHAMPTON - In opera, anything can happen as long as you sing about it.
In Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera Our American Cousin, the events immediately surrounding President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were examined operatically through the eyes of the actors in the play the president came to Ford’s Theater to attend that fateful evening.
The opera premiered Friday evening at the Academy of Music Theater.
The production was superb, with excellent singing from the principals across the board, and an excellently prepared chorus (Mallorie Chernin, chorusmaster) that executed Sawyer’s challenging ensemble composition, both accompanied and unaccompanied, with clarity and subtle expression. Carole Charnow’s insightful stage direction, Nancy Leary’s costumes and Christopher Ostrom’s sets and lighting illuminated the drama in forthright and meaningful fashion.
The Rock of Gibraltar underpinning the entire event was the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its conductor Gil Rose. New music is their business and they presented Sawyer’s score in its best light, with comprehension and passion. Balance between the orchestra (conceived, according, to Sawyer to approximate the size of the pit orchestra at Ford’s Theater) and singers was optimum at all times, a partial result of the company’s experience gleaned from their concert performance and recording of the work in March 2007.
Soprano Janna Baty brought a poignant depth to her portayal of Laura Keene, the manager of the company that presented Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in 1865. Beyond her consistently beautiful and intentional singing, Baty’s immersion in her character made the audience care about Keene. Prior to the performance Baty shared some of her research into Keene’s history that informed her interpretation, revealing the scope of Keene’s accomplishments in the development and advancement of American drama. Such thorough artistry enables such a transcendent performance as Baty gave.
Tenor Alan Schneider brought a similar blend of top-notch vocalism and characterization to the part of Harry Hawk, the actor playing the titular Cousin, who regales his British hosts, and by extension, the president and Mrs. Lincoln and the assemble audience of soldiers, freedmen, nurses, wives and widows, etc. with a homespun tall tale of Possum herdin worthy of Mark Twain, in what was the most memorable set piece of the evening. Through their solid, bel canto vocal approach, Schneider and Baty succeeded in softening the edges of Sawyer’s often (and no doubt intentionally) angular and fidgety phrases, bringing them closer to the realm of singer-friendly opera whose lineage can be traced back through Barber, Moore, and Floyd, to Puccini and Verdi.
Baritone Tom O’Toole gave a strong supporting performance in the unenviable role of the egotistical assassin John Wilkes Booth. A brooding presence akin to the villain in a melodrama, Booth is given one of the opera’s most telling lines, set to a morphed version of Dixie, with the challenge “Look away, look away, look away, if you can!” which resonates across the myriad issues the opera addresses - slavery, politics, war and peace, and the nature and influence of artistic creation and expression.
In addition to Schneider’s possum piece, the mother and daughter Mountchessingtons’ (Janice Edwards and Hillarie O’Toole) cap-setting duet A Really Monied Man provided welcome comic relief to the almost surreal, temporally manipulated textures that prevailed throughout much of the opera. The duet garnered one of the few moments of mid-opera applause that the score admitted.
Donald Wilkinson and Angela Gooch invested President and Mrs. Lincoln with majesty and humanity. Wilkinson’s aria Hard to Look At, Difficult to See was commanding and touching, and Gooch’s mad retreat into the shallow world of fancy accessories in reaction to her husband’s shooting was deftly executed.
Drew Poling (Ned Emerson/Lord Dundreary), Aaron Engebreth (Jack Mathews/John Coyle) and Daniel Kamalic (Dr. Leale) rounded out the uniformly fine singing cast.
The creation and production of Sawyer’s opera Our American Cousin is a signal accomplishment in this day when such endeavors are well nigh beyond the reach of mere mortal composers unaffiliated with beneficent foundations.
For many reasons, including the looming 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth next year, the subject matter is timely. Shoptaw and Sawyer packed the libretto and score chock-full of devices, conventions, subtleties and witticisms. On the surface, these items, including a few barely pardonable puns, like Keene’s welcoming line to Lincoln, “Tonight we grant you general leeway” and the unforgiveable presumption of setting the word “fratricidal” to music, were initially charming, but the sheer insistence and audacity of their cleverness began to cloy.
Of the three acts, the central one, in which the play Our American Cousin was given, came to life with the greatest immediacy, thanks to its contents of set pieces and simple melodrama that was not trying to exist on more than two levels at once. The outer acts, which distorted time in surreal (albeit fully operatic) ways, tended to groan under the weight of their meticulous construction, particularly the finale.
Sawyer’s choral writing alone, harmonically rich in extended triadic tonality, and (for the most part) vocally kind, was worth the price of admission. The “audience’s” commentary on the action, the situation, and the history was perhaps the single most compelling feature of the opera - it could almost be extracted as a Civil War cantata, with some of the arias (Lincoln’s in particular) inserted as solo movements. The worrying aspect was that after taking in the entire opera, the sheer complexity and convolution of Shoptaw and Sawyer’s craft might leave us wondering, as the character Jack Mathews does near the close of the piece, what really happened.