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The Music of Memory

New York
Peter Jay Sharp, Juilliard School
04/23/2008 -  and April 25,27
Ned Rorem: Our Town
Alex Mansoorti (The Stage Manager), Marc Webster (Dr. Gibbs), Jennifer Zetlan (Emily Webb), David McFerrin (Mr. Webb), Jessica Klein (Mrs. Gibbs), Alex Shrader (George Gibbs), Julie Boulianne (Mrs. Soams), Nicholas Bentivoglio (Simon Stimson), Paul Appleby, Andy McCullough (Joe, Frank and Sam, friends of George), Carin Gilfrey (Lady in the balcony), Paul La Rosa (Man in the audience)
Performed by the Juilliard Opera Center Juilliard Chorus and the Juilliard Orchestra, Anne Manson (Conductor)
Howard Berkeley (Director)

Few composers take on a classic drama and come out artistically alive. Verdi did it three times with Shakespeare, Schoenberg did it with the Bible and Berlioz and Gounod did it with Goethe, but most of the efforts have been sad ones. Ned Rorem is another exception. As a Midwestern-born American, he understands the setting of Thornton Wilder’s great drama Our Town. As an exceptionally intellectual man, he understands the Wilder’s philosophical foundations. And as one of the great art-song composers today, he has conserved his operatic writing for what he feels will work

With a play 90 percent Wilder, and mainly structural changes by America’s favorite opera librettist, poet J.D. McClachey, Rorem has written a drama which is poignant, emotional, sometimes funny, but never far from Wilder’s original study of life, death, remembrance and the meaning of existence itself.

Premiered at Indiana University last year, the New York premiere took place this week at Juilliard, a school whose voices and orchestra were, for the most part youthful, but always professional. Besides this, the skeleton set sticks to the original drama, the acting is physical, nuanced and effective. By the end of the two-hour opera, one had come to a dramatic and operatic climax which grabbed at the emotional heartstrings.

For those unfamiliar with Our Town, the drama begins with a description of the “ideal” American town, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire circa 1904. A place where, as the “Stage Manager” (a combination of God, Greek Chorus and minor character parts) says, “Nothing ever happens” But some things do happen. George and Emily fall in love and marry. Emily dies in childbirth and implores the Stage Manager to spend one more day on earth, this her 13th birthday. And here she discovers not only the “magic” of living, but the tragedy that we never seize each moment, that “w don’t have time to look at each other.”

It is stunning drama. McClatchey changes the opening of the original with the funeral procession, and adds some pedestrian words from Dr. Gibbs about how the world depends on love. Wilder would never stoop so platitudinous. But we needn’t worry about this, not with such a lovely composition.

Rorem starts with five dissonant chords, repeated and varied at emotional moments. They are not jarring, but they show that “something” is of import, even if we don’t know it. The music is continuous, without a single “song”. For a man of Rorem’s genius, this is .disappointing. . In Emily’s dazzling monologue at the end, I needed so much an aria like Ain’t It A Pretty Night, from Carlisle Floyd’s Susanna. Certainly Ned Rorem is capable of this, but I suppose he felt that one “star” piece was not right for the opera.

The orchestra does have its very American Copland-Harris-like motifs, and the quotes from hymns at the right places gives it the right grounding. No percussion, modest forces, simple enough for any occasion, and conducted beautifully by Anne Manson. Most endearing are the seamless sounds from vocalists .

One must first single out Jennifer Zetlan as Emily. She has the only really difficult passages, in the third act. One can picture Rorem saying “On earth, they sing without affectation. But realizing what happens after and what we need to know, we need something more emotional, more difficult. Yet Ms. Zetlan, reserved earlier, let herself go here with a radiant soprano voice that caught all the anguish of the situation.

Alex Mansoorti was the omnipresent Stage Manager with a folksy baritone (and a lovely caricature of the Druggist), Both groups of parents were fine, but neither had great musical challenges. Alex Shrader was George, the baseball-loving kid who grows up to realize death, and his voice was equally affecting.

What we must say above all is that this was such endearing music. Possibly even enduring music. Just as the original drama became a staple of amateur dramatic societies for several decades, this opera should easily make its way into the repertory. Certainly, it is one of Ned Rorem’s most lovely creations.

Harry Rolnick



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