[Review] by Joseph R. Pehrson [(v.9#4, p.9 End of Year 2001) of]
Marc Blitzstein: Sacco & Vanzetti. (World premiere of version completed By Leonard Lehrman). Staged reading, accompanied by Mr. Lehrman, conductor/pianist; Michael Pilafian, 2ne piano/asst. music director. White Barn Theatre, Westport, CT. Fri. eve, August 17, 2001
Marc Blitzstein left only sketches for his opera on the Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were incorrectly accused and executed for a murder they did not commit, primarily due to American xenophobia. Several composers, including Leonard Bernstein, Elie Siegmeister and William Bolcom have tried to complete the opera using Blitzstein's fragments, but none succeeded. They all found the remaining sketches "too fragmentary." However, Leonard Lehrman is in a slightly different position from these other composers: his own concert music actually sounds quite a bit like Marc Blitzstein's! For this reason, it was not a stretch for Lehrman to complete this task. I must say I will never again listen to a "piano rendition" of an opera without taking it with a grain of salt; in fact, the entire "shaker" might be appropriate. At a private gathering, Leonard Lehrman, Helene Williams, soprano and companion, and Ronald Edwards, bass [sic: baritenor] and long-time collaborator, attempted to "pound out" the opera on piano and sing all the roles for a select group of vocal composers, including Ned Rorem and Jack Beeson. This writer happened to be among the group, but the intentions of the opera were not at all clear in that presentation. Everything seemed rather high in pitch, it was hard to understand which part went to which singer, and the entire plot was muddled. Well, when three people sing about 33 different parts, this is bound to happen!
Fortunately with the White Barn production, although still to only Leonard Lehrman's piano accompaniment, I was able to get a full appreciation of this interesting piece. this performance was a "staged" reading, with performers still "on book." Ten singers were used, all excellent, with the exception of a couple of "straddlers" who were not quite equal to the others. The principals, Gregory Mercer, tenor, playing Sacco, Monica Harte, singing Rosa Sacco, his wife and James Sergi, singing Vanzetti were particularly fine and, since they sing a lot this makes a difference. When I say a lot, I am not exaggerating. This opera is three hours in length, and when one takes the intermissions into account (there are two of them) the listener is in for a 3 1/2 hour commitment.
Unfortunately, I did not find the White Barn Theatre to be particularly accommodating. The people who run it do wonderful work there and it is quite a pretty place in the country, but they keep the temperature in there slightly warmer than Antarctica and have no food concessions. This seems like a minor point, but since many travelers are rushing from Manhattan jobs to curtain time, having at least sandwiches present might be appropriately gemuetlich. The social message of the opera rings loud and clear in this production. It's a good indictment not of the Italian immigrants, but of a particular time when our "American system" was meant for only certain people, of the appropriate class and ethnicity. Of course, some such practices still carry on today, so reminders of the past and particularly of the "Red Scare" era, which started in the 1920's and continued for at least 30 years, have value. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Leonard Lehrman's completion of the Marc Blitzstein score is the fact that there is virtually no identifiable music of Leonard Lehrman in it. I know his style well, having heard many works over the years. Lehrman was particularly careful to adhere to Blitzstein's musical language which is, as I have mentioned, quite similar to his own, but still somewhat distinct. It was as if, miraculously, Marc Blitzstein arose from the dead just to complete this important work.