THE OPERA JOURNAL 30:3 Sept. 1997 pp47-50
New and Old at Glimmerglass
[original title: Of Mice and Men and Gluck at Glimmerglass]
reprinted in part (with some cut passages restored) by The Steinbeck Newsletter 10:2 Fall'97 p24
by Leonard J. Lehrman
When Glimmerglass Opera gloms on to a work, old or new, they really get into it, passionately, from as many angles as possible.
A Tradition of Seminars
Beginning with last year's Lizzie Borden, and continuing this year with Of Mice and Men and next year's The Mother of Us All, a tradition of seminars in collaboration with the New York State Historical Association has been established, which the new Glimmerglass General Director Esther L.L. Nelson says shall continue.
Ms. Nelson hails originally from the little German town of Sulzfeld, near Baden, between Heidelberg and Stuttgart, though her entire professional opera experience has been in the U.S.--from New Orleans to North Carolina via Nevada and Virginia. Germanic influence, missing in this season's repertoire, could nonetheless be felt to some extent in the thoroughness of the background provided.
An exhibit of programs and photographs relating to Christoph Willibald Gluck's Iphigenia in Taurus made mention of Goethe's magnificent contemporaneous drama of the same name (both are based on Euripides); and Gluck's last effort before his death in 1787 was the preparation of a German version (closer to the original Greek, for a Vienna production); but the company performed the original French version of 1779, which despite its regicidal climax was dedicated to Marie Antoinette(!).
None of the many other operas on the subject--by composers as distinguished as Handel, along with Andre Campra, Baldassare Galuppi, Nicola Jommelli, Gluck's rival Niccolo Piccini, and Tommaso Traetta (which Gluck had conducted in 1763), have held the stage as well as Gluck's; it remains his most-performed of his 102 (47 extant) works after Orpheus and Euridice and Alceste; the libretto, by NicolasFrancois Guillard, adapted from a 1757 drama by Guymond de la Touche, is considered the best text he ever set.
Compared with the humanistic, enlightened characters of Goethe and modern dramatic sensibilities, it still seems full of melodramatic outbursts and barbarically cardboard characterizations, mercifully kept to a minimum in director Francesca Zambello's spare supertitles. Largely through body language, her direction effects a through-composed tension, reflected in the details and overall structure of the marvelously beautiful music (lovingly conducted by Jane Glover), sweeping the set pieces along without applause in between (in what is also something of a Glimmerglass tradition), and revealing the fascination and influence this work had for and on Mozart (esp. Idomeneo), Cherubini, Spontini, Berlioz, Wagner, and Richard Strauss, who went so far as to create his own adaptation of the score in 1892.
Outstanding in the cast were soprano Christine Goerke in the hefty title role, baritone Nathan Gunn as her brother Orestes, and especially tenor William Burden as Pylades (in two arias that could hold their own next to any of those for Mozart's tenors), a role designated by Euripides as the husband of Electra and thus Orestes' brother-in-law, but in the opera a bit more than brotherly in his attachment to Orestes.
Grant Youngblood as Thoas and the chorus of Scythians were purposefully monstrous, the whole production in its preoccupation with ritual, blood, and hatred seemingly reflective of recent Balkan events, though ancient Taurus is actually what is now called the Crimea. Only the stagy holding and then release by the soldiers of a Greek woman bearing news to the priestesses proved lame and ineffective.
Cruel to the singers, though, was the way in which all the women were showered near the beginning of Act I with gallons of water gushing in from the ceiling, and then kept onstage to sing, undried and sopping in their thick robes. (The night we attended, a rainstorm outside kept up a counterpoint even after the onstage tempest had abated.) They might at least have been allowed to remove their robes and dry off; certainly the Greeks would not have been offended!
Floyd's Of Mice and Men
The theatricality of nudity was discussed, fleetingly, in the seminar and subsequent conversations with the composer of Of Mice and Men\, Carlisle Floyd. His most popular work, Susannah (1955), set in the American South and based on the parable of Susannah and the Elders, who are shocked by her nude bathing, is often staged, especially in Europe, with partial, full dorsal, or silhouetted nudity. "And why not, in this day and age?" remarked the composer - "so long as it's tasteful."
Audiences attending the work at New York City Opera in the 1950s did not at first even realize what it was about. Less reticence is de rigeur today, of course, though even as recently as a dozen years ago the climactic moment in the world premiere of Elie Siegmeister's The Lady of the Lake was spoiled when at the eleventh hour the soprano portraying the title role absolutely refused to bare her breasts and reveal a concentration camp tattooed number, as called for by the Edward Mabley libretto and Bernard Malamud story. (Even more recently, a similar moment for the character of Vashti in Charles Kondek's libretto for Hugo Weisgall's opera Esther was deleted in the New York City Opera production.)
The male frontal nudity recorded in government-commissioned photos of poverty during the Depression was one of the reasons many of the photos were never released, explained Hartwick College Associate Professor of Art, Fiona Dejardin, in the seminar on Of Mice and Men entitled "Portrait of the '30s: Inspiration for an Opera."
Susan Shillinglaw, Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, and author of a forthcoming biography of author John Steinbeck's first wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, discussed the tremendous influence his first wife had had on the author, encouraging him and typing the manuscripts of his trilogy on itinerant laborers: In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (first called Something That Happened) (1937), and his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
It was Carol who introduced him to the great muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, and brought him to meetings of the John Reed Club in Carmel. Later, when he divorced her, he also left California, progressive causes, and most of what made him great to most readers: the deep understanding and empathy with simple but very human working people. Several of his works have been made into plays and movies: Burning Bright is an opera by Frank Lewin; East of Eden is an opera in progress. But Of Mice and Men is the most successful opera based on Steinbeck so far.
Floyd did not have the benefit of direct collaboration with the author, who died in 1968, but through agents he submitted a libretto and received valuable advice: the author approved the excision of the story's black "stable buck," Crooks--though director Rhoda Levine slyly re-introduced at least a subtle reference to him in the chorus character of Johnson, played by the African American baritone, Kenneth Floyd (no relation to the--white--composer!); and a satirical chorus on the acronyms of the New Deal--NRA, AAA, WPA--was recommended cut, which it was, thus contributing to the timelessness of the tale.
Glimmerglass Music Director Stewart Robertson, originally of Glasgow, noted with only semi-facetious pride the Scottish origin of the title, taken from a poem by Robert Burns who, like the characters in both the novella and the opera, had also been an agricultural laborer. Steinbeck had urged Floyd to use the author's own play adaptation, which was widely performed, though producers like George S. Kaufman wished it could be funnier and sexier--and Steinbeck did expand slightly the one female role, that of Curley's Wife (sung in the performance we heard by the talented, young, slightly wispy Margaret Lloyd, in place of the indisposed Juliana Rambaldi). In the most hilarious Freudian slip of the seminar, Professor Shillinglaw referred to Robert Burns as "George Burns," which might have pleased Kaufman! But Floyd found that by and large the play was merely a verbatim transcript of the novel, and started from scratch, or rather from the spine of the story, creating his own very successful libretto with roughly 70% entirely new text.
There are a few spoken passages that might have been more expressively set to be sung, and Act II has a few longeurs in the long duet between George (bass Rod Nelman) and Slim (baritone Victor Benedetti), but the scene picks up beautifully with the rhythmically vibrant trio in which George is joined by Candy (bass-baritone Tony R. Dillon) and Lennie, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who was an absolute knockout in the difficult role of the retarded sidekick. From the Act I mouse aria to the tragic denouement, the huge Griffey made it all sound breathtakingly easy, and embodied the best characteristics of tenor Richard Cassilly in his younger days.
Floyd had written the role with Cassilly in mind, but he never performed it. (The original Lennie was Robert Moulson, in the 1970 premiere by the Seattle Opera after San Francisco, which had commissioned it, released it, for reasons that are still not clear.) Hearing Griffey in it makes one want to hear the gifted young tenor in other roles like the Simpleton in Boris Godunov, Itzak in Idiots First, or the title role in Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg. (Soon-to-be-released recordings with Griffey include works of Poulenc and Verdi conducted by Ozawa and Levine.)
It also makes one look forward to Floyd's next opera, Cold Sassy Tree,
based on a novel by Olive Ann Barnes, set in Georgia, and slated for an April, 2000 premiere. No work of his may ever attain the status of the spiritual Susannah, which is on anyone's list of the ten finest American operas; but Straussian, Gorkian, and yet fluidly lyrical Of Mice and Men deserves more productions like this one--and a commercial recording!
Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown should encourage the sale of Floyd's vocal score(s) in the local music stores downtown, where you can buy something related to any of the other operas in the season's repertory (including Butterfly and The Italian Girl in Algiers), along with lots related to the local Baseball Hall of Fame--including bats, balls, caps, cards, pennants, uniforms, photos, but (surprisingly) no gloves. It's almost as if they're encouraging you to rough it-- barehanded--like the theater, with no air conditioning and no heat, except for a few space heaters in the orchestra pit and the passion of the players.
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