Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town has been an icon of American dramatic theater since it premiered in Princeton, NJ, in 1938, followed by a long run on Broadway. It is about living life in the moment — living life to the fullest in a simpler, less cluttered time than ours. I recently read a review of a British production where the reviewer said she found the opening of the play boring and nodded off several times.Thankfully, in the third act, she realized what it is all about when she woke in tears to the meaning of the play, savoring life. This is it. The play is simple, with practically no scenery, and it is totally focused on the meaning of life.
What about setting such a play to music? Aaron Copland wrote incidental music for the 1940 film. The film was pretty much a bomb, but Copland's music has hung around. Many other great composers have lusted after the opportunity to make an opera of it. During his lifetime, Wilder (and his heirs thereafter) held strict rein on the play for various reasons. Until recently, that is. So by luck or fate or some unknown circumstance, it fell to the 80-something Indiana-born Ned Rorem, himself a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, to put Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, on the opera stage. J.D. McClatchy prepared the libretto. It was premiered on February 24, 2006, by Indiana University Opera Theater. Since then it has received performances at a number of student venues, but not yet by a fully professional cast.
The recent performances by the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the North Carolina School of the Arts at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem (February 2 and 4) and at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh (February 9 and 11) provided evidence enough that Rorem and McClasky have given us a masterpiece for the American opera stage that will be treasured by many opera lovers for generations to come.
Rorem's score, like the play, is sparsely instrumented, yet it covers the range of human emotions with wonderfully rich colors. Imbued with the spirit of New England and the mythical Grover's Corners, he employs clever tone painting everywhere. There is a descending piano scale when George comes downstairs to his father's call. There are chirping semiquavers when George's friends are trying to get him to stop talking to Emily and join a more important matter, a baseball game. The hymns sprinkled throughout the story line have a Charles Ives quality about them, recognizable yet full of so much more meaning, reference and emotion.
Rorem uses just the right amount of romantic lyricism and biting dissonance. His charming (New England for sure!) melodies played by solo flute, oboe, strings, piano, or pianissimo trumpet appear as counterpoint to George or Emily's solos, or as bridges, never intruding but always enhancing and moving the story along. The ensemble scenes— especially the choir rehearsal scene and the wedding scene — provide opportunity for complex counterpoint and give the piece true operatic flavor. Music can say things words cannot express.
The production was a joy to see. The costumes were ideal. I missed the ladders Wilder specifies in his script, but George and Emily communicating while sitting on the edge of the stage was an acceptable alternative. The eaves of the neighboring houses provided a nice representation and the simple chairs and tables were suitable for their purpose. The use of projected period scenes and representations was very well thought out and effectively done. In one of the unforgettable speeches of the play, Emily muses about a letter she received addressed to "Grover's Corners, New Hampshire; USA; Continent of North America; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God... and the postman brought it just the same." The projections of stars and star maps were wonderful.
The orchestra was outstanding: twenty-five strings, two each of flutes, clarinets and horns, an oboe, a bassoon, a trumpet and a piano. Maestro James Allbritten worked magic (and worked hard at it), revealing Rorem's playful, wistful, taunting, tragic and complex score. For the opening act and the third act (the funeral scene), he must have crept into the orchestra pit on hands and knees so as not to draw applause, which would have distracted from the mood of the pre-act business, especially the setting up the cemetery before Act III. He did walk on upright for the beginning of the second act to receive well-deserved applause for the musician in the pit.
The choir was superb, handling Rorem's sometimes dissonant harmonies and slightly off-tune settings of familiar melodies. The singers were well cast, except Mr. Webb did not look quite fatherly. Jonathan Sidden, a graduate of the NC School of the Arts, was outstanding as the Stage Manager. Sara Pardo and Adam Ulrich were comely as Emily and George. Their wedding duet was a winner, and Pardo's graveyard aria was powerful, operatic and moving. Other key characters were Stephanie Foley as Mrs. Gibbs, Christopher Ervin as Dr. Gibbs, Nichole Annis as Mrs. Webb, Jeff Seppala as Mr. Webb, Amy Hartsough as Mrs. Soames, and Brian Shumaker as Simon Stimson, the choirmaster. Only Sidden as Stage Manager did a mostly creditable job in getting the words across. It is not easy to sing such music, focusing on good vocal production and having the words come out clearly and understandably. Like several people in the audience I talked to, I felt a superscript set-up would have been helpful. Opera is opera after all, and not Broadway.
Putting that trivia aside, the afternoon was delight after delight. Rorem's score is, I think, ideal for Our Town and deserves to be heard and enjoyed widely.