The world premiere of an opera is a serious undertaking of major proportions. So much is resting on the success (or failure) of the work. Significant amounts of time, money and talent have been invested in the work. Most of all, there is the major investment of the composer and librettist, putting into it their hearts and souls. So much can be lost, even destroyed by the failure of the work. And how easily that failure can occur, be it the conservatism of the audience or of the critic. As the resident “authority” on modern and contemporary opera for American Record Guide (ARG,) I take my responsibility to the new work quite seriously. I do as much “homework” on the composer, the subject and the opera as I can. It is most important to be prepared going in.
Thus it was that with a sense of excitement and a certain amount of trepidation I approached the first performances of Bernard Rands’s Vincent at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music (Musical Arts Center, seen April 9 & 15). Upon arrival at the “MAC” a pleasant surprise was in order. Much of the foyer was taken over by an assemblage of chairs, most already filled, facing a dais for an in depth preview of Vincent to be presented by the composer, the librettist (J. D. McClatchy) and the costume designer (Linda Pisano), moderated by the stage director, Vincent Liotta. One could not have asked for a better introduction to the opera. The highly articulate panel began with a brief history of the development of the opera, then an in depth exploration of their aims and ideals and how these were expressed in text and music, and in the production. Any concerns I had vanished. This panel could not only sell a contemporary opera to distrusting audience, they could sell a refrigerator to the Eskimos.
The production by Barry Steele was awesome. The stage was totally empty with the three sides on stage huge gray panels. A scrim enclosed the fourth (audience) side. Upon these were projected seemingly hundreds of paintings by the opera’s titular character, Vincent Van Gogh, creating a 3-D video projection world “based on the world as Van Gogh saw it, so that the world that surrounds him looks like the worlds as he sees it, not the world we would see if we were taking a photograph of it.” (Liotta) It was a living, breathing stage of glorious beauty and intensity, constantly in motion, fluid, always changing, a world of art beyond reality! Just as Van Gogh was engulfed by his art, so the audience was engulfed in the bizarre beauty of his world. Little in the way of props or furniture was needed: a few paintings, a desk, a bed, appearing with precision in the orchestral interludes. The stunning climax of the opera was Van Gogh’s suicide. The audience was “with Van Gogh” in that passionate wheat field, as much a part of the production as the singer or Van Gogh himself. At the sound of the single gun shot a flock of Van Goghesque crows took flight (via film), a startling effect, much as the artist would have seen them just before shooting himself.
But what of the libretto and music? Were they effective in supporting the storyline; strong enough, to not be overwhelmed by the visual aspect of the production? Rands’s experience in the field of opera was limited to a single entry: Belladonna, a two-act opera commissioned by the Aspen Festival (Colorado) and performed there in 1999 and not often seen since. On the other hand, McClatchy’s experience was major. A poet and literary critic, McClatchy had already written eight opera libretti, including Ned Rorem’s Our Town (2006), Lowell Lieberman’s Miss Lonelyhearts (2006), Lorin Maazel’s 1984 (2005), Tobias Picker’s Emmeline (1996), all well-received. Other libretti were written for William Schuman, Bruce Saylor, Daron Hagen, and Elliot Goldenthal. For Rands, McClatchy based most of his libretto on the correspondence between the artist and his brother Theo. Many quotes from the letters were quite revealing psychologically. Dramatic contrasts are the hallmarks of Van Gogh’s paintings and his life. McClatchy has capture the artist’s life and personality, not in just the downward spiraling of despair as the man sinks lower and lower, but his transcendent art becoming more extraordinary. McClatchy says: “So it’s a kind of double helix rather than just a downward spiral.”
Finally, the music. Aural magic! Sometimes the music was delicately imitative of objects or ideas; bells for the church, a heavenly (offstage) choir. Strong harmonies, delicate orchestration (harp,tambourine, bongos and wood blocks for a dance) yet capable of a tremendous musical climax. The numerous orchestral interludes would make an effective collection much like Benjamin Britten’s “Sea Interludes” (Peter Grimes). The vocal lines sound highly influenced by Britten as well. The music often caresses the ear, sometimes assaults it, but is never less than effective.
So impressed by the opera and its production, I returned for a second performance. I had hoped to hear both casts, but a scheduling conflict allowed me to hear the same cast twice. Two more experienced artists were brought in to sing the title role, David Adam Moore for the actual premiere (April 8th) and Christopher Burchett (seen twice). Burchett was magnetic in his deeply moving characterization coupled with a handsome baritone voice. The role is quite lengthy, but Burchett never faltered or tired, leading to a heart-rending final monologue. The only other sizable role was the painter Paul Gauguin sang and acted with gauche panache by Adam Walton. Steven Linville flounced and bounced as a towering (!) Toulouse-Lautrec. In the orchestra pit the school’s Philharmonic Orchestra played its own sonorous beauty, delicate and powerful by turns under the solid leadership of Arthur Fagen.
This is an opera that should be taken up by the operatic establishment. It need not have the stunningly elaborate production fielded by IU. The opera is strong enough to stand on its own. Dramatic, musically accessible it is an opera from the heart to the heart.
Charles H. Parsons