Whose Opera Is It Anyway?: Another Opinion
[Review] by Barry L. Cohen [(v.9#4, p.10 End of Year 2001) of]
Sacco & Vanzetti. Performance of Sat. eve, August 18th .
It seems to this writer that an undertaking like Leonard Lehrman's completion of Blitzstein's Sacco and Vanzetti would immediately bring about a sense of admiration for the composer who'd put aside his most precious moments - those needed to pursue his own exclusive creativity - in order to pay tribute to a dead soul mate. The natural reaction one might expect is, "What a magnanimous enterprise - how unselfish!" Yet we soon discovered that such motives, however honest we may believe them to be, did not go unquestioned and that, in the course of some side conversations, we actually heard words like "chutzpah" and "balls" used to describe the feelings of interested figures in this backstage drama, not just those of dilletantish drop-ins. Well, to say that we don't agree with this disputation and wonder about those people's motives might open a Pandora's box and raise the whole question of artistic property and its potential mistreatment by well-meaning adherents. To avoid lengthy digression, let's just say it's not a new question at all, since in both the operatic and symphonic spheres there are numerous examples of unfinished works completed by others. And we're speaking of works for which all rights were secured legally and properly. We should feel richer for that. To take the position that what has been left undone is sacrosanct is to treat words and music as belonging in the coffin with the rotting corpse or in the urn with the ashes of the cremated.
Marc Blitzstein, who died a violent death in 1964 in Martinique, supposedly at the hands of Portuguese sailors, left two operas unfinished, Idiots First and "Sacco." The energetic Lehrman set about to work on the former, which he completed in 1973 and which went on to gain distinction. It supposedly precipitated the comment from Leonard Bernstein that Lehrman is "Blitzstein's dybbuk." We have not seen a production of this work, but it has received a good press in its several stagings.
The "Sacco" rights saga began when Blitzstein's sister Josephine Davis, who had suggested the Idiots First project, gave Lehrman the okay to take on the other unfinished opera in 1978. At the time, he was serving as the Met's Assistant Chorus Master under James Levine, who showed interest, but the prospect of the Met getting involved had been dimmed back in 1960 when patrons became outraged over the commission of a work dealing with an "un-American subject." Yet, despite this fracas, the death of Jo Davis, and other time-consuming activities, Lehrman maintained a strong impulse to keep Blitzstein's music alive and before the public, with efforts like a radio program in 1985 in celebration of the late composer's 80th birthday, two volumes of 'The Marc Blitzstein Songbook,' a 'Blitzstein Cabaret' (which became a CD), as well as scattered presentations of Blitzstein's songs. All the time there was interest in the completion of "Sacco" by other composers (mentioned by Joe Pehrson above). Only Anton Coppola tackled the subject and composed a totally original version based on music written for a film planned but later dropped by his nephew, Francis Ford Coppola. (We have never heard any of this music.) Eventually Lehrman completed Act I of the Blitzstein version, and it was then that the estate agreed to his completing the opera by the end of 2001, an assignment fulfilled well ahead of schedule.
So the notably fast-working Lehrman has indeed fashioned an ambitious three-act music-theater product from the parts well shaped by his predecessor, plus his own numerous additions. Ambitious, yes, and we feel the three-hour work requires first-class performers to give it maximum credibility. There are some truly magical moments in this piece, mainly in the second act with two outstanding arias sung by Sacco and several duets between him and the undoubting Elizabeth Evans, a comforting civil rights supporter. These parts are pure Blitzstein (though edited by Lehrman) from which one can feel a tug at the heart, partly owing to the sympathetic portrayal of these two characters. Also successfully turned is the stark contrast with which the gentle Sacco and the defiant, ideological Vanzetti are portrayed. The two standout performers were Gregory Mercer, who gave Sacco a genuine humanity, and Tammy Hensrud, who added a glow to Mrs. Evans['] demeanor and an interest in Sacco that hinted at something maybe a bit more physical and a little earthier than pure platonism.
But despite Joe Pehrson's contention that Lehrman had an edge over other prospective composers, we see that the odds were stacked against him, his vast erudition on the subjects of both Marc Blitzstein and the historical facts of the Sacco-Vanzetti case notwithstanding. This is still a pieced-together opera. Two listeners can agree on the superficial similarity of styles between two composers, but music by a great composer can be heard between the notes. Ultimately, the heart was abandoned in this effort.
To his credit, Lehrman confided something of his modus operandi to us before the performance. He said the reason Blitzstein never got to the court scenes was that he felt uneasy about portraying villains. He felt all people have good in them and he avoided the blatant melodramatic in black and white. (Regina is a good example of that.) But Lehrman took the position that the prosecutors of the accused were all misguided fools, and so that is how they are portrayed. It doesn't work. there is a cartoonish face to the trial scenes. Judge Webster Thayer, who at the end, gloats, "[d]id you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards?" comes over as just a shrill xenophobe. D.A. Frederick Katzmann and Police Chief Michael Stewart are one-dimensional schemers. The "bounty hunters" are greedy simpletons. The jury foreman, played by Lehrman himself, comes across as a Punchy puppet with a one-word vocabulary - guilty. In the third act dancers come on stage to celebrate the execution of the "Wops" with a number that's sort of early anti-capitalist Shostakovich. In fact, this third act is the big letdown, 95 percent completed by Lehrman, a kind of busy kaleidoscope of mostly bourgeois reactions to the case, finally ending with the spoken words of Gov. Michael Dukakis declaring the two men innocent. To this reviewer it's all a tidy wrap-up that does not convince.
With reference to Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock and Regina, we can see what was missing in the end - the tug at the heart. True, if it were too saccharine, like Sacco saying goodbye to his wife and children, telling them to be wise and strong, it might just smack of Boris Godunov. But let's admit it: "Boris" has been around a while.