03 December 2005

Prima: An American Tragedy

Picker AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY; Met, 2.12.2005, World Premiere; c. Conlon; Racette, Zajick, Graham, Gunn, Burden, Larmore, Begley, Bernstein.

Initial reactions, still stewing, still spewing. This new opera by Tobias Picker (and Gene Scheer, librettist) is a major success both vocally and dramatically. The funnel of the tragic plot practically writes its own dark arias and lamentations (opera's bread and butter, after all); Picker is brilliant in keeping it all in check. I do not know how academics, musicians, and musicologists will judge the quality or value of this new work; speaking as an opera fan, however, a gut check returns the verdict of an unqualified two thumbs up, with respect to the prime task of integrating music into the drama, among many other winners. Theodore Dreiser's novel, from which the libretto is based, is doorstop-thick, so it may indeed be impossible to develop fully and then resolve every character's storyline. Accepting this, one is a nit-picking grinch to list the faults of this work; I'm not going to at this time. (After a few hearings, we can be sure that Sieglinde will come up with a few things.) Condensing such a work in a 2-CD evening may result in a simplistic narrative and caricatures for characters, and this may be so here; but within such constraints, both librettist and composer have come out showing their better sides. (I would, however, cut a few more clichés out of the libretto.)

The work also delivers vocally for the singers. [ADDED NOTE: I'm purposely leaving the discussion of character & narrative for a later time; that will take a whole other post or five.] The stellar cast, headed by Nathan Gunn and Patricia Racette (as the more vivid star-crossed pair this part of the season), has risen above every expectation: more than solid vocally, they all inhabited the stage like Broadway pros. Gunn has an adequate baritone, but natural acting instincts, shimmering stage presence, crisp sung-English, delicious face, porn-cut torso, and big feet. Racette may not be the sweet lyric I remember her to be, but she used the edgy edge of her voice to stunning dramatic effect. Dolora Zajick is simply divine: she wove in and out of a few octaves with ease, emanating with volume, accuracy, and elegance throughout. (Some of those top notes were of the superior soprano variety, the kind that can diminuendo gracefully with the flick of a switch.) On paper, she's the weakest dramatically (coming from the American school of Stand and Deliver), but fortunately her role demanded little outside the vocal arena. She appeared genuinely surprised and touched by the tremendous ovation she got during the curtain call. Susan Graham has the most fragrant sonic essence in the current mezzo roster, and she delivered as advertised. One wishes, however, that she got more opportunities to soar and devour, but this is a minor, minor point. Jennifer Larmore, who had a supporting-supporting role, disappeared seamlessly in the background. (I'd be pissed if I were her, but who knows what the real story is; she could have been used more, but then we're bordering a 3-CD evening, and other issues may start to outweigh such adjustments). William Burden, Kim Begley, Mark Schowalter, Richard Bernstein, and the rest of the cast, including the boy Graham Phillips (as the young Gunn) kept the quality at such a high level. This evening, to me, was conductor James Conlon's least offensive work in a while. (That's a Bravo! in relative magnitude, considering the vile poison Sieglinde has spewed on this maestro's reputation in recent months.)

Heroine Francesca Zambello, head of the production team (no boos during her curtain call-- surprise!), has to be given significant credit for everyone else's success. Nuance and detail were balanced; there is obvious mastery of the Met stage (in particular) and stagecraft (in general); all the stage physics supported, focussed, explained, validated music and narrative, which is all we really ask for. Is that too much? (The Romeo team does the exact opposite!)

The composer, Tobias Picker, was greeted with a most thunderous Met curtain call, reserved normally for the likes of Fleming & Diva Co.. He must still be floating in Cloud 99.