Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
An Opera Based on Edith Wharton's Novella
What could be a more fascinating conclusion to this Berkshire season than seeing two world premiere adaptations of Summer, Edith Wharton's stirring summer love story set against the rolling landscape of the Berkshires. Just a few weeks ago I saw Dennis Krausnick's striking dramatized version at Shakespeare & Company's Stables Theater on the estate where the author got to know the countryside and its people. On Thursday evening I went to the final dress rehearsal of the chamber opera having an all too brief run at the Koussivitzky Arts Center. The play whetted my appetitite for the opera composed by Stephen Paulus and with a libretto by Joan Vail Thorne. Seeing the novel brought alive in these two genres make for a sufficiently differentiated experience to squelch any sense of repetition.
The story is obviously the same: Young Charity Royall feels like the perennial outsider. Raised in the village of Dormer, the ward of a once successful lawyer she no longer belongs to the dirt poor, immoral mountain community from which he rescued her. Neither does she fit into the dull and restrictive life of the town. When Lucius Harney, the cousin of one of the town's leading citizens, Miss Hatchard, arrives to study the area's old houses, all her pent up yearning for someone to love bursts into bloom. What follows is a sultry love affair which when published in 1917, was enough of a "shocker" to lead to its being banned in a number of libraries -- including the Lenox Library of which the author was a substantial patron.
Each adapter has been true to Edith Wharton's characters. Dennis Krausnick's drama is particularly notable for its use of the townspeople as a chorus to move the action forward, and do so in the author's own voice. Joan Vail Thorne's adaptation required more editing of details as well as additions to provide composer Stephen Paulus with text that would support his musical leitmotif and provide the sort of arias, duets and trios an opera needs to be memorable.
As librettist Thorne explains in the program notes: "Imagine the joy of spending weeks with Edith Wharton's words! Imagine the terror of changing one of them! Not to mention the arrogance of leaving some out and letting some in. The beautiful love duet in which Lucius Harney embraces Charity Royall and sings "You are my summer, you are my sun" exemplifies this awesome task at its most impressive. This soaring romantic anthem and Charity's solo lament about being "on the outside looking in" make immediately strong impressions.
Mezzo-Soprano Margaret Lattimore, last seen at the BTO as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, is a spirited Charity Royall. The men who love Charity are ably portrayed by two singers who distinguished themselves in last season's fine production of The Consul. Baritone Michael Chioldi is particularly appealing Lucius Harney and bass-baritone John Cheek the tormented Lawyer Royale, though some of the condensation from novella to libretto makes his role somewhat less rounded.. The rest of the cast also features strong voices. Soprano Joanno Johnston as Miss Hatchard is a standout. The clarity of all the singers' delivery makes the super titles for an opera sung in English not only somewhat strange but superfluous.
The clean spare lines of David P. Gordon's scenic design with its sliding panels works well to suggest the simple clap board architecture that dominates New England. Jan Hartley's large upstage projections lend a wonderful sense of the atmosphere and beauty of the Berkshire landscape. When the green mountains burst into the rich reds of Fall, we see the finality of the summer love affair which unlike the leaves of the tree cannot change and grow and thus continue. Like the Shakespeare & Company production, furniture and props are kept to a minimum -- exemplified by the window behind which Charity listens as Lawyer Royalle tells Lucius about her backround.
The stagehands carrying furnishings on and off stage make for a certain awkwardness which will be especially apparent to anyone who sees Shakespeare & Company's elegant and dynamic use of its ensemble to do the same job. The Fourth of July celebration also suffers somewhat by comparison to the other production's ability to create a sense of a fully peopled town.
That Fourth of July celebration in Nettleton (which was probably Wharton's name for Pittsfield where the opera is being staged) interjects a few moments of folk music. The rest of the score is also quite melodic, though typical of the modern idiom, its tonality is laced with dissonance which needs to be heard more than once to fully impress itself on the listener's ears. I particularly liked the orchesta's rumbling preludes to the on-stage confrontations. The fact that the second act of Summer's score resonated much more deeply for me than the first, may have as much to do with that process as the music itself.
In the final analysis, this night at the opera is ideed a night to remember and a fitting follow up to the company's past modern operas, such as Susannah and The Consul. With its economical staging and score for small orchestra, it may well have a life with other small companies in search for additions to their new opera repertories.
Summer: the Play Shakespeare & Co.
Other BTO operas reviewed: The Consul. . . The Barber of Seville
Interview with librettist Joan Vail Thorne