Friday evening was one of those impossible evenings, if you happen to be a critic – I struggled to juggle two overlapping events, and one of them (next post) gets short shrift as a result.
Hey, I couldn’t just walk out of the Charleston Symphony’s semi-staged concert performance of The Tender Land, Aaron Copland’s only opera (if you don’t count an early student effort). I’ve heard it on CD, but this was the first time I’d ever seen it …and besides, it turned out to be quite a decent performance.
Like most of his best-known stuff, Tender Land is about as American as music gets. Its rural, depression-era Midwestern setting is adroitly mirrored in Copland’s evocative and well-crafted score. Conductor Scott Terrell and his players rendered it beautifully – they were almost (but not quite) the stars of the show.
Star laurels must go instead to soprano Courtenay Budd, whom I’ve been joyfully listening to (and reviewing) for some time now – mostly in Spoleto’s fabled chamber music series (Charles Wadsworth sure knows how to pick ‘em). I’ve also plugged her ravishing CD of lullabies in last year’s festival blog – read my review (and others) right HERE. She was an ideal Laurie: the restless adolescent heroine. This lovable young lady – as usual – sang straight from the heart, and her soaring high notes were enough to melt the frostiest soul. To boot, her diction was superb: she was the only singer whose every word I could understand. Her singing has a conversational quality to it … in places, I almost forgot it was opera I was hearing.
The remaining roles were pretty well-filled, too. Jessie Hinkle, as Ma Moss, used her sonorous mezzo voice to good advantage – though she was hard to hear at times against the onstage orchestra. Bass-Baritone Matthew Burns made for a booming Grandpa Moss, though minimal costuming and makeup left him looking too young for the part. Michael Mayes’ gutsy baritone and macho stage swagger made him a convincing Top: one of the plot’s pair of drifters who show up at the Moss farm.
Martin – his more sensitive sidekick (and Laurie’s sudden love interest) – was nicely portrayed by tenor Jeffery Picón, whose attractive lyric tenor mostly filled the bill. But he had some trouble sustaining a couple of his high notes, and suffered a brief pitch problem or two. Local vocal standouts Martin Nusspaumer (Mr. Splinters) and Mary Hubbell (Beth) did very well in their smaller roles, as did several bit-part singers from the CSO Chamber Choir. Oh – and the chorus sounded great in its brief “party” appearance.
My only other gripes concern the sonic balances and certain aspects of the staging. The (darkened) presence of the orchestra onstage produced higher instrumental volume than we would’ve heard from the pit – and their often rich sound nearly drowned out several of the singers in places. That could’ve been the fault of the Sottile’s dry acoustics – that remain somewhat unfriendly to vocal sound, even after their recent renovation.
The semi-staged production – the work of Ryan Taylor – generally worked well, using simple props and basic lighting on top of the limited costumes and makeup I already mentioned. But a concert performance of any opera means that the singers don’t necessarily have to memorize their roles: they’re allowed to carry scores onstage, and several of the singers did just that (Budd and Mayes didn’t need them). Unfortunately, even limited stage action can get awkward if you’re lugging your score around. Among other spots, the love scene was a bit disconcerting … as Martin embraced Laurie with a thick, red-bound book dangling from one hand.
Still, Tender Land was well worth attending … I enjoyed it, and it offered a fitting close to yet another engaging and accomplished Backstage Pass season.
Check out my next post for a telling sampling of music from the College of Charleston’s excellent composition department … heard the same evening.