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The last weekend of Long Leaf Opera's second annual summer festival included what could be considered the strongest and most satisfying of all its offerings this year. Although Jorge Martín's The Glass Hammer is a song cycle, its leanings are operatic, and its execution here was full of character and drama.
The hour-long work for baritone and piano consists of 15 poems by Andrew Hudgins, drawn from his book-length collection of the same title. Published in 1994 with the subtitle, "A Southern Childhood," the poems are snapshots of growing up in 1950s and 1960s, universal in their portrayal of strict parents, odd relatives, and rivaling siblings. The writing is lyrical and nostalgic in parts, and includes a fair amount of humor, but also candidly confronts subjects such as an abusive father and a young boy's sexual awakening. In the first poem, a young boy breaks an irreplaceable glass knick-knack, a symbol of childhood's end.
Martín, although born in Cuba and now a resident of Vermont, has, to this Southerner's ear, captured all the right flavor of the period and setting. He uses the mesmerizing waltz-time of Baptist hymns (with snatches of "Softly and Tenderly") for the section on daydreaming in church and stride-piano blues for the father's rant on how much harder things were in his day. Martín's music is highly pictorial, whether quietly conjuring fireflies on a summer night with short filigreed phrases or creating the strokes from the father's punishing belt with immense, pounding chords.
The music is always at the service of the text, which is set without pretension or overt showmanship, despite such clever touches as the little fugue under musings about inheriting a family's looks or the suitably comic cadenza by the preacher on the word "Bible." Martín is primarily an opera composer, evident from his sure way in differentiating characters and the narrative feel in his text selection.
The singer is crucial here, not merely for beauty of voice and clarity of text, but for the individualization of the characters. Here, the experienced opera singer Jonathan Hays confidently supplied everything that was necessary for success. His full, mellow baritone ranged from the softest half voice to the grandest thundering outburst, while his acting of the bellowing father, the admonishing mother, the elderly grandmother, and the innocent kid brother was detailed and nuanced.
Craig Ketter was an equal partner at the piano, his precision and control allowing for breath-taking delicacy and roof-rattling power. His empathetic connection with Hays made the performance a beautifully integrated whole.
The last few poems in the piece deal graphically with first sexual stirrings, with many references to private anatomy and various sexual acts. Although some in the audience may have been shocked to hear such things, they were handled with the utmost artistry by author, composer, and performers, proving that art can edify the whole of human existence.
The performance in Memorial Hall, the venue for Long Leaf's staged productions, was the result of a conflict in the more intimate Gerrard Hall, but Hays and Ketter had no trouble filling the vast space. Martín joined the performers onstage for repeated curtain calls from the small but appreciative audience.
In just two festival seasons, Long Leaf Opera has established a pattern of offering recent American works like The Glass Hammer that push the boundaries of opera, including last year's At the Statue of Venus (Jake Heggie) and this year's A Water Bird Talk (Dominick Argento) and Orpheus and Euridice* (Ricky Ian Gordon). So far, the professional quality of these events has eclipsed the festival's more formally operatic presentations. With a little more equalization and consistency, the festival could become a prime destination for new operatic works in English.
*A review of the 6/29 matinee performance is pending.