The critical establishment received Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land coldly when it premiered at the New York City Opera in 1954.
Originally conceived for a television production that never happened, Copland’s longest work – though it’s not long by operatic standards – took inspiration from Walker Evans’s documentary photos of Americans suffering through the Dust Bowl. Set in rural Kansas during the Great Depression, with a plainspoken libretto by the composer’s friend Horace Everett and the incorporation of folk songs, the “folk opera” may have been ahead of its time.
It has since become popular. Certainly the opera establishment is much more welcoming of work that is, first, unabashedly American in both sound and theme, and second, not rooted strictly in the vocabulary of classical music. At St. Peter’s Church on June 13-14, marking the 60th anniversary of the opera, New York’s Chelsea Opera celebrated its own 10th season by staging a small-scale but large-spirited production of The Tender Land in a version with a score artfully reduced for chamber orchestra by Murry Sidlin. The self-styled “little opera company that could” proved its mettle by cramming the pews full of music lovers for an inspired and inspiring production.
The cast assembled for the simple, tightly woven story was strong from top to bottom. Company co-founder Leonarda Priore’s deep mezzo cut authoritatively through the soupy air of the church on a humid night to establish the story’s emotional focus as Ma Moss, the loving, protective single mother of two sweet but restless girls growing up on a struggling prairie farm. Soprano Joanie Brittingham brought an ideal combination of crystalline tone and focused personality to the role of elder daughter Laurie, about to be feted as the first member of the family to graduate high school.
The drama arises with an overnight romance. Laurie meets Martin (powerful-voiced tenor Chad Kranak, who boasts stunning high notes) when he and his fellow vagabond, the comically ravenous Top (played with amusing bluster by baritone Peter Kendall Clark) arrive just as Grandpa Moss (profound bass Steven Fredericks) needs help with the harvest.
Priore touchingly conveys Ma’s dark suspicions that the drifters are actually a pair of criminals being sought for having attacked two local girls, but she can’t prevent Laurie and Martin from falling in love over the course of the big graduation party full of high spirits and folk dances. In a nice directorial touch, the party was already underway on stage as the audience filed back in after intermission, with the assembled revelers freezing into a tableau as the lights dimmed for the opening of Act II.
The party winding down, the lovers resolve in a lovely duet to meet at daybreak and run off together. The gorgeous intervals of “I love you, I do” give way to powdery dissonant chords as others enter, breaking the lovers’ idyll. And when Top convinces Martin that the vagabond life is no life for a young woman like Laurie, a sad finish – even if one that’s hopeful in a broader sense – is inevitable.
The story’s modern moral was another aspect that struck me as possibly ahead of its time: the idea that a newly graduating girl needs to make a life for herself independent of dreams of romance and marriage. Remember, this was 1954.
Music Director Samuel McCoy conducted the 13-piece orchestra with vigor and sensitivity and it responded with equal measures of both, eliding over an occasional pitch imperfection to deliver Copland’s wide-open harmonies, mood-busting dissonances, sweetly angular melodies and sometimes jazzy rhythms in warmly satisfying and often striking style. Both Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein seem to me to have absorbed Aaron Copland’s music into their own American styles in different ways. The score of The Tender Land sounds as fresh and as interesting as Copland’s much-more-often-heard orchestral pieces like Appalachian Spring and Rodeo, and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to hear this beautiful work in a top-notch production by Chelsea Opera, which should certainly rank as one of the country’s preeminent “small” opera companies.
It’s also encouraging that Chelsea Opera has reached its 10th year and continues to draw the support it needs to assemble such high-quality talent, especially in a climate in which New York City Opera, which staged the original production of The Tender Land 60 years ago, has had to fold its tents. This was my first Chelsea Opera experience and it won’t be my last.