CD Review by Marlene Harding in magazine still called The Music Connoisseur (v.4 #32 pp.25-26) of
Leonard LEHRMAN: We Are Innocent. Peter Schlosser, baritone; Helene Williams, soprano; Metropolitan Philharmonic [Orchestra] & Chorus, conducted by the composer. LP recording made Dec. 17, 1988. Opus One. Time 45:30.
This is a noble effort that merits a fully realized stage performance, an event which could feature choreography in the vein of the Anna Sokolow School of Protest. We Are Innocent is operatic in the sense of being both lyric and dramatic, patriotic to a fault, and filled with instrumental and vocal passages of great and poignant beauty.
The problem, dear reader/listener, lies in the sources of the lyrics. They are just not poetic or vivid enough for one to identify with Julius or Ethel Rosenberg. Julius is especially hampered by the Latinate vocabulary drawn from his own words in the Rosenbergs' Death House Letters. Had he been a less fervent American, had Ethel expressed herself in more extended poetic imagery, had Dr. Lehrman been somehow more inspired, the resulting product might have soared to the heights of classical tragedy. This is the essence of Bach's Cantata #57, "Selig ist der Mann," one of Lehrman's sources for his cantata. Other sources credited by liner note meister Mike Snell are Elie Siegmeister's bluesy The Face of War and Marc Blitzstein's Sacco and Vanzetti. There is also much in the orchestration which evokes the shredded hopes one hears in Kurt Weill.
But the work bears rehearing; it begs for more. Indeed, this is the source of its shortcomings. The "We Are Innocent" protest theme, borne most often by the Chorus of Hope, meant to double as FBI agents (but who would know that without a program mention!) is presented in several guises but then starts to sound repetitious, if not downright murky. The whole effort seems to cry out for reworking, but especially the lack of variation in that main theme.
The singing by both Mr. Schlosser and Ms. Williams, for whom Lehrman wrote this cantata, is excellent, affecting, memorable. Nonetheless, more emotion might have been explored. I would like to hear some of the rage, those complaints that the Rosenbergs might have uttered without posterity in mind, that might give more humanity and impact to We Are Innocent. For there are some wonderful moments: the music written for the oboe and the flute were exquisitely perfect and haunting.