Opera Magazine August 2012
Guild Hall School of Music and Drama, May 29
Thorton Wilder's classic American play was the subject of overtures (of the non-musical kind) and requests for Operatic rights from both Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland, and it is tantalizing to think what they might have made of it. But on the whole, it was good that he turned them down (Bernstein especially, whose style was surely too sassy and knowing for this study in nostalgia), for Ned Rorem's 2006 adaptation (to a libretto by J.D. McClatchy) is exactly the sort of touching idyll the play would seem to require. A truly authentic American opera, it has far greater musical integrity than the Heggiesque idioms that increasingly pass for new opera in America now. Made when the composer was 83 and the playwright had been dead for 30 years, it is a beautifully autumnal piece of work, yet suites student performers well. Premiered at Bloomington, Indiana, it has gone on to several American conservatories; this staging with students at "The Guild Hall" was it's first European production.
The setting - of both play and opera - is Picket-fenced, apple-pie 1900's New Hampshire. Despite a large cast, the simple plot focuses on Emily and George, who as the offspring of two respectable families in the village of Grover's Corners duly fall in love and get married. Emily dies in childbirth, but continues to make her presence felt in the act 3 dialogue between the dead and the living. The point at which the seemingly naive drama turns powerfully poignant and where Rorem's gently illuminating gains disturbing depth. But what made Wilder's work so seminal was his stage directions, developed independently of Brecht's theatrical theory yet striving to give his audience a similar critical relationship with the action. ("Our reviews say that is a nostalgic, unpretentious play with charm,'recalled Wilder'. "But what I wrote was damned pretentious.") His play was designed to be performed on an empty stage with projections and mime rather than props and scenery, and Stephen Medcalf's superb production at the GSMD preserved this integrity moving with ingenuous and haunting fluidity. The Silk Street Theatre was configured with the audience on three sides of the central platform and pew-like seats on the fourth side for the performers, evoking the church's centrality in the community. Medcalf also modernized and expanded Wilder's concept of the projections, giving the Stage Manager (as he is called, really a one-man Greek Chorus who comments on the action) and iPad from which he did Powerpoint presentations of the history of Grover's Corners.
The talented cast entered into the spirit of things with sly whit, lead with panache by the Stage Manager of Stuart Laing. Sky Ingram sang Emily Webb with sunny tone and gave her all to the character and Alexandros Tsilogiannis brought a darkish tenor to George Gibbs. There were lively cameos from Anna Starushkevych (Mrs. Soames, the village busybody), Barnaby Rea (Dr. Gibbs), Ashley Riches (Mr. Webb) and Jorge Navarro - Colorado (Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choirmaster). Balancing this chromatically-spiced tonality and soft-edged modernism in Rorem's score, Clive Timms shaped a flowing performance and ensured that his singers were never overpowered. This marked his retirement after more than two decades as the GSMD's head of opera studies, and it was a fine farewell.