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American Life


By B.A. Nilsson

Our Town

Music by Ned Rorem; libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Based on the play by Thornton Wilder

Lake George Opera Festival, Spa Little Theater, July 1

The Capital Region’s most significant cultural event of the year—of many years—was the professional premiere of Ned Rorem’s operatic version of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town.

Our Town, which debuted on Broadway in 1938, famously did away with props and scenery, its three acts ramping up in intensity through characterization and the friendly Stage Manager’s frighteningly omniscient point of view. To add music adds emotional intensity, which needs to be synchronized to a plot in which conflicts are small and infrequent. Verismo it ain’t.

Rorem, who is 82, has a deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading art-song writers. He melds words and music with a rare sense of the weight and flavor of a lyric, in a voice unmistakably American, but European-influenced American, with nary a blue note or syncopated riff in the Our Town score. Think Barber, not Bernstein.

A pleasant but plangent chord, breathy with wind instruments, repeats as the opera opens, then segues into an unsettling setting of the hymn “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” as the chorus makes a serpentine procession across the stage. Thus we meet the Stage Manager (Robert Swensen) only after the musical stage, so to speak, has been set, and he offers his introduction. It’s a good idea: Better to introduce the musical feel of the piece before this avuncular character gets started, so we can accept that what he has to say will be sung.

And, although I once again question the need for supertitles in a very intelligibly sung English-language piece, the titles also were used to convey some of the background info (time and place and township trivia).

Act One, in the original play, gives us a swirl of characters, some from the town, some from the audience, in the midst of whom we meet the Gibbs and Webb families. Librettist J.D. McClatchy pares this to the most essential characters, supported by the affecting music. The teenagers Emily Webb (Sarah Paige Hagstrom) and George Gibbs (Vale Rideout), sans siblings, carry on their halting courtship against interruptions by the gossipy Mrs. Soames (a delightful Deborah Fields), whose intrusion is marked with chiruppy winds, and George’s baseball-enthusiast trio (nice work by Nephi Sanchez, John Tsotsoros and Frédéric Rey), who are given delightful ensemble work as a counterpoint to the couple’s halting communication.

The small orchestra, excellently conducted by Mark D. Flint, was rich with color. There’s a laugh-out-loud moment when Handel’s Largo—the love of which is named as one of the cultural highlights of Grover’s Corners—gets parodied. Flute and low strings set the beginning of the mournful third act; solo piano is overtaken with a crescendo of sound as act two begins. Muted trumpet underscores George’s dialogue with editor Webb, while trumpet and then strings are part of the texture under George and Emily’s extended second-act scene.

And that’s the backbone of the piece, the encounter between them that takes us to their wedding. McClatchy not only pared the original but added rhymes, unobtrusively set by Rorem but still giving beautifully effective momentum to the piece, reaching a high point in this scene. Melodic fragments first heard in act one are combined and expanded here, and the act ends in a rush of good feeling.

Which makes the devastating sadness of act three the more compelling. Set nine years later in the town cemetery, it turns us around for an entirely different look at the minutiae of village life, a look that gets more compelling with each passing generation. Once again the chorus makes its serpentine way across the stage, this time in funeral procession, as a number of the dead comment blandly from their graves. And Emily’s final moment (“Goodbye, world”) was a transcendently effective scene that could well take on a life of its own.

Hagstrom brought a radiant beauty to Emily that made her third-act transformation believable. She has a strong voice that seemed a little big for the small theater in solo moments, but she blended well with Rideout in their moments together. He, too, was a standout in a stellar cast.

Director Nelson Sheeley isolated the strong moments in appropriate areas of the stage, but I would like to have seen more creative movement of the chorus. Kudos, too, to production manager David Yergan for his lighting, which reinforced the emotional contrasts in the piece.

Rorem and McClatchy’s Our Town had me in tears by the end, and its moods have stayed with me since. I have no doubt that it will become a favorite of the opera stage, and we’re more fortunate than we probably know to have merited these early performances.

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