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October 31, 2000

Mobile Opera’s Tender Land is a Tender Triumph

A Review by Pat Pinson

Performing a lesser-known work The Tender Land, Mobile Opera joins in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the composer, Aaron Copland. Copland is that cultural icon who captures the character of the American landscape in his themes and rhythms. When choreographed by Agnes de Mille or Martha Graham, the scenes of cowboys or the Appalachian Mountains make indelible impressions on the mind. But singing brings out the disjunct quality of those melodic lines and lets us focus on Copland as a 20th century composer who stretches and pulls the harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic fabric of the music to fit our modern era. This is his only opera.

The production could hardly lose. With the teaming up of Maestro Shannon again with Stage Director, Bill Fabris, the set from the Virginia Opera, with soloists of distinction and a chorus that can match anybody in the U.S., it was sure to be a winning event. And it was.

Set in the rural mid-west of the early 1900s, the story is about the conflicts that underlie the lives of good people and about coming of age. Not a glamorous opera like many, here the dresses and work clothes were more realistic than flattering. But they worked with the set -- a house from Grant Woods’ American Gothic -- with what seemed to be real prairie grass growing out back. The clapboard sides of the house became transparent when the lighting was changed, and the field was full of fireflies in the evening. A strong set for a strong play, with excellent technical support.

The libretto is especially effective in making its characters round instead of flat stereotypes. We empathize for instance, with Grandpa’s anger and anguish at Laurie’s interest in the young men, because she represents a milestone in the family’s larger existence. She, however, is too caught up in her own emotions to fully understand him. Top and Martin come into the scene with all the stereotypical connotations of drifters, but depart with a certain nobility. Copland, himself, comments on the paradox of Laurie’s seeing Martin as a source of freedom, and his seeing her as a chance to settle down. We become aware of the dilemmas of family, of growing up, of strangers in a rural community, and of the absence of simple right and wrong answers.

The second act was the lavish one surrounded by the quieter acts of One and Three. But Act Two opens almost as a surprise. The stage is filled with people who have come in their plaids and ginghams to a party for Laurie, the first in the Moss family to graduate. Lights were strung in baskets to give the farm a festive air. With this chorus -- singers, children, and dancers -- there are no bit parts. Everyone was immersed in their part from the moment they walked on stage. They talked, told stories, danced and had fun -- really! Having seen too many operas where people stand around and sing, this company is indeed exceptional. The dancers from Parapluie were hard to tell from the group until they danced, and they danced well especially in the constricted space available. During the second part of the act when attention switched to Laurie and Martin, the chorus stopped in mid-movement and did not move nor change expression for over 10 minutes. No one moved a hair.

The singers were very evenly matched. Lester Senter as Ma Moss has the rich mezzo voice with strong low tones needed for this part. Her voice and presence was the grounding for the whole opera. The lighter and higher soprano of Laura Knoop Very, a Met performer, gave Laurie a somewhat wistful and also willful portrayal as the tall, youthful girl straining at the traces to become independent. It is a naturally beautiful voice with finely contoured high pitches. David Stoneman, as Top, one of the drifters, was electric on stage. He seemed to actually be the part he played, and his fine baritone voice projected easily to the last seat in the hall. Neal Harrelson, the tenor, was much more introverted and self-aware. His voice sounded tight at first, but he grew on you. By the end, he seemed to hit his stride and his voice easily met the demands of the part. David Feiertag, bass, gave Grandpa the authority, stability, and confidence required for the head of the Moss family. Mobile’s Scott Wright, as Mr. Jenks, performed "Ching a ring a ring ching" so delightfully that it brought a round of applause. Ashley Arcement as Beth, Laurie’s young sister, did not sing, but spoke her lines beautifully and moved like a dancer. Her wistful gaze after her sister at the end was especially poignant as we see the cycle of "graduation" begin to repeat itself.

Such a gathering of fine voices from all over the country made this lesser known American opera into a tour-de-force performance. Bravo! Mobile Opera. You’ve done it again.


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