‘The Tender Land’

Saturday, August 08, 2015
In a distinguished career of writing music that expressed American life and idealism at its best, Aaron Copland’s quintet T he Promise of Living , which ends the first act of his only full-length opera The Tender Land , is surely among the most stirring.

Copland based The Promise of Living on an old American hymn Zion’s Walls from The Social Harp , a collection of “tunes, odes, anthems and set pieces” which was compiled by a Georgian, John G. McCurry, and published in 1855.

To hear how Copland amplified and built Zion’s Walls into a swelling wave of glorious sound is to hear a particular kind of American genius at work.

It’s not only that Copland, born in 1900, was a formidable talent, but that no other country could have nourished or produced him in a way that drew on such a catalogue of influences. A thoroughly urban kid from Brooklyn, son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, grows up to write music for orchestra, ballet and film that draws on the folk tunes of the American West, Mexico and Cuba, w hich becomes emblematic of the U.S. as a whole.

If you go see Opera North’s luminous production of The Tender Land , which has two more performances on Sunday and Aug. 15 at the Lebanon Opera House, you will be struck by what a magnificent piece of ensemble music Copland wrote, and how beautifully he conveyed the idea of the common good, and the social contract of mutual forbearance that, ideally, should uphold us all.

Opera North’s Young Artists, who perform The Tender Land with a nuanced balance between high-spirited verve and deeply-felt sentiment, made The Promise of Living the high point of the evening.

In our current climate of ugly fractiousness, the anthemic The Promise of Living — indeed, the whole opera — is a reminder that nobility of spirit can still exist in our tattered democracy. It has a buoyancy that we think of as being quintessentially American.

Copland wrote the opera in a very different time, of course: it had its premiere at the New York City Opera in 1954. But fractiousness and divisiveness are in the nature of the still-evolving American experiment, and they were then, too.

When the opera debuted the country was just emerging from the end of the Korean War. The McCarthy period was still in full swing: indeed, Copland had been subpoenaed to testify in 1953 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Rosenbergs had been executed the same year. The Cold War was hot. And Copland was looking back less than 20 years, to the social and economic cataclysm of the Great Depression.

Influenced by James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men and the mythic documentary photography of Walker Evans, Copland set The Tender Land in the Midwest during the Depression. The story is rudimentary and unadorned — girl meets boy and wants to leave home — but moving for that universality.

Laurie Moss, a girl living on a family farm with her mother, younger sister and grandfather, is about to graduate from high school and is restless to see the world. Two young men, drifters looking for work, stop in at the farm. The grandfather hires them to help bring in the harvest. But Laurie’s mother worries that they’re the same two men who have assaulted another girl Laurie’s age in a neighboring county.

There’s the familiar American paranoia, the suspicion of the stranger, the outsider who’s believed to foment unrest and disorder. But there’s also the tradition of hospitality, of giving to others, when Hop and Martin find shelter at the farm.

Laurie and Martin fall in love, there’s a celebration for Laurie’s graduation, and Laurie and Martin promise to run away together. But — spoiler alert! — Hop persuades Martin that Laurie will never be at home with the kind of life that he and Martin have led. Martin leaves, and Laurie is left heartb roken but determined to strike out on her own.

The Tender Land was originally intended to be shown as part of NBC’s Television Opera Workshop, but was rejected by the producers. (My cursory on-line research doesn’t reveal the reason for the rejection: politics? dissatisfaction with the opera? something else?)

In any case, it received a tepid reception when staged by the New York City Opera. Critics weren’t keen on the libretto by Copland’s companion Erik Johns, who used the pseudonym Horace Everett. The libretto is spare and plain-spoken, and it does the job. But it’s not particularly fluid or nimble, musically or verbally, with the exception of the eloquent T he Promise of Living . There’s a disconnect between the flatness of the libretto and the agility of the music.

And compared to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma , which debuted in 1947, The Tender Land lacks that work’s rich, varied storyline, humor and detailed characterization, although the heroines of both share the same name — Laurey in Oklahoma , and Laurie in The Tender Land .

But The Tender Land contains some of Copland’s most delicate and, well, tender music. It overflows with affection for this country’s size and scope, and sense of possibility, while not overlooking the uglier strains of American life.

Many of us probably know The Tender Land ’s music from the suite for full orchestra, which Copland wrote after the initial failure of the full-length opera. But the version presented by Opera North is for a pared-down chamber orchestra, which, according to music publisher Boosey & Hawkes, was arranged in 1996 by M urry Sidlin; it used the same scoring that Copland had for the 13-instrument version of Appalachian Spring .

This chamber orchestra version is conducted deftly and with great delicacy of feeling by Michael Sakir, making his Opera North debut. That more intimate sound suits the twangy, lonesome feel of much of Copland’s music, and it also brings into superb relief the chorus of The Promise of Living , which is as close to w a s you can get while still being supported by an orchestra. The Northern Stage orchestra played with meticulous attention to the subtleties of Copland’s score, the way he evokes the song of the meadow lark and the rushing wind.

Jenna Siladie, as Laurie, has both considerable stage presence and a supple, vibrant soprano that is affecting in its clarity of tone. Emily Geller, who was a stand-out in last year’s Opera North production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene , is affecting as Ma Moss, particularly when she flashes back to Laurie’s childhood. Kian Freitas is in strong voice as Grandpa, as is Jesse Dard en as Martin. The other soloists and chorus do right by Copland’s score.

Scenic designer David Arsenault has created a handsome barn edifice that serves as the backdrop for the action; lighting designer John Bartenstein matches him with shifts of color and mood.

Stage director Vincent Connor marshals the cast ably, particularly in the group number “Stomp Your Foot,” which accompanies the celebratory scene for Laurie’s impending graduation.

Connor also injects into the relationship between Grandpa and Laurie a provocative note of desire by grandfather for granddaughter. I don’t know whether that’s suggested in the libretto. The way Connor introduces and stages the theme is plausible; it may not be entirely necessary, but it doesn’t flop either, and Connor doesn’t linger on it to excess.

Opera North is to be applauded again for its willingness to bring unfairly neglected works of the American musical theater to our attention. We’re all richer for it.

The Tender Land will be performed Sunday at 2 p.m., and again on Saturday, Aug. 15, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call the Lebanon Opera House at 603-448-0400 or go to the Opera North website at http://operanorth.org/productions—-tickets.html.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.

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