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A tragedy with local resonance

The Alice Busch Theater
07/20/2014 -  & July 25*, 31, August 5, 7, 9, 11, 16, 24, 2014
Tobias Picker: An American Tragedy
Christian Bowers (Clyde Griffiths), Vanessa Isiguen (Roberta Alden), Cynthia Cook (Sondra Finchly), Aleksey Bogdanov (Samuel Griffiths), Daniel T. Curran (Gilbert Griffiths), Patricia Schuman (Elvira Griffiths), Samantha Guevrekian (Grace), Jennifer Root (Elizabeth Griffiths), Meredith Lustig (Bella Griffiths), John Kaupsta (Reverend McMillan), Thomas Richards (Orville Mason), Matthew Scollin (Judge)
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra and Chorus, George Manahan (conductor)
Peter Kazaras (director), Alexander Dodge (set designer), Anya Klepikov (costume designer), Robert Wierzel (lighting designer), Eric Sean Fogel (choreographer)

C. Bowers & V. Isiguen (© Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival)

The tragic events of 1906-08 that provide the subject matter of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy all occurred within a short distance from the Glimmerglass area. This factor certainly manages to give an extra resonance to a production of an opera based on what has become an American literary landmark, Theodore Dreiser’s novel, published in 1924. It was subsequently the basis of plays, plus films in 1931 and then in 1951 (as A Place in the Sun).

The plot focuses on a young man employed by wealthy relatives in a supervisory role in their garment factory. He embarks in an illicit affair with one of the factory girls; she becomes pregnant and he promises to marry her. In the meantime he has become friendly with a sophisticated young woman who is a member of his relative’s social set. He and his fiancee visit a lakeside resort where he drowns her, hoping this will be seen as an accident. This does not work, however; he is put on trial and executed.

Also giving the work an extra jolt of verisimilitude was the decision to cast singers who are approximately the same age of the real-life principals in the drama. The opera’s premiere was given at the Metropolitan Opera in 2005 with Nathan Gunn as Clyde Griffiths (the young man), Patricia Recette as Roberta Alden (the fiancee) and Susan Graham as Sondra Finchly (the socialite). Given that the work was to be performed in such a large theatre with highly experienced singers, Tobias Picker’s compositional style is vigorous to say the least. The overall tone of the work is (very appropriately) brooding and moody. There are lighter moments when, for example, we see the country club set (along with Clyde) enjoying themselves, but overall it is a heavy day’s work for singers of any degree of experience. Christian Bowers manages the role of Clyde very well, right from his opening aria that is reminiscent of Tom Rakewell’s in Act I of The Rake’s Progress. The two lead women, soprano Vanessa Isiguen as Roberta and mezzo Cynthia Cook as Sondra, both have very attractive voices, but the unyielding musical demands give little room for expression to develop.

More experienced singers such as Aleksey Bogdanov as Samuel Griffiths, paterfamilias and factory owner, and Patricia Schuman as Clyde’s anguished mother, both adeptly handle the considerable demands of their roles. Glimmerglass Young Artist Program member Daniel T. Curran is a standout as Gilbert Griffiths, a sardonic rich boy.

This is just the second production the work has received. Tobias Picker and his librettist, Gene Scheer, have made some changes, the biggest one being the elimination of the first 20 minutes of the work which recounted Clyde’s background and life before arriving in the factory town. This way the work starts in the factory and we are immediately confronted with the dramatic situation, while during the subsequent action we are given sufficient information as to his background. One drawback to the cut comes clear later when, while on trial, Clyde’s highly religious mother appears and suddenly becomes a major figure in the action. Her late appearance unbalances the opera to a degree.

The unit set features an array of the shirts that are made in the factory and form the basis of the Griffith family prosperity. The scene at the lake where Clyde entices Roberta to go for the fatal canoe ride is deliberately vague; the audience is unsure as to what has transpired until the evidence is presented at the trial.

It is hard to predict what the future of this work might be. Other dark works in a “modern” idiom have found a place in the repertoire, such as Peter Grimes and Of Mice and Men. Tobias Picker now has five full-length works which seem to be achieving a spate of productions. As with Britten and Floyd, audience and management familiarity with his style and idiom could lead to further productions.

Michael Johnson



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