by Ned Rorem; libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Based on the play
by Thornton Wilder
Lake George Opera Festival, Spa Little Theater, July 1
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.
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
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
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