Copland’s ‘The Tender Land’ lacks inspiration, dramatic tension ― and most everything else
Glimmerglass Opera’s Young Artists perform well, but the infectious melodic and rhythmic zest of Copland’s ballets come up missing in this opera
Glimmerglass Opera employed all the elements required for a performance of Aaron Copland’s rarely heard opera The Tender Land, first performed in 1954 at City Center Theater in New York.
Copland wrote it with a young cast in mind, so General and Artistic Director Michael MacLeod turned performance duties over entirely to singers in the company’s Young American Artists Program.
To guide them, he engaged director Tazewell Thompson, an alumnus of Syracuse Stage with past opera experience. Stewart Robertson, the popular former Artistic Director of the company, returned as conductor.
The plot, such as it is, seems perfect for Copland’s dewy-eyed view of America: a coming-of-age story about a high school graduate itching to leave her suffocating existence on her grandfather’s Midwestern farm in the Depression and take on the world.
Set designer Donald Eastman provided a suggestion of this farm with amber waves of grain swaying along the back of the stage. The playing space was framed by two barn-like sidings. Golden lighting suggested the heat and smell of late spring on the farm.
Copland had already proven he could write ballet and film music that has come to symbolize an American folk sound. Surely the composer of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid, An Outdoor Overture, and The Red Pony could animate this American farm fable.
So, everything was in place for a successful Glimmerglass revival (I saw the opening night performance, July 10, 2010).
Everything, that is, but an opera worth performing. Had Copland been an experienced opera composer (he wrote only two), he would have handed this back to his partner Erik Johns (a dancer and painter, but no librettist) and told him to try again. The piece lacks dramatic tension, surprise, and poetry. Every plot point is painfully obvious. Johns’s lyrics are embarrassing. He writes as if he thinks this is what farm people might say if they thought they were in an opera.
The plot offers only stale dramatic situations. Two drifters show up at Grandpa’s farm looking for work. Soprano Laurie falls for the tenor drifter. Grandpa is not happy and orders the drifters to leave on a pretext. They do. Laurie is bereft. She packs a suitcase and sets out on her own. That’s it — spread over three interminable acts. The generic operatic forms are here—a love duet, a hoe down, a duet for the drifters, an aria for the angry grandpa. But there is no dramatic tension, no complex characters, and nothing in the plot the audience can’t see coming from as far away as Kansas.
Still, Copland’s best music could have saved the day. I would listen to a used car commercial sung to Appalachian Spring. But even Copland could not rise to this challenge. His infectious melodies and rhythmic zest are nowhere in evidence. Scholar Vivian Perlis describes the score this way in The New Grove Dictionary of American Opera: “The music is diatonic, in the style of his popular ballet music, with only occasional dissonances for dramatic purposes. The score incorporates several folksongs and is written in a simple style for small orchestra.” Or, one could say, it is simply uninspired. Not a note sticks in the mind. Copland produced musical wallpaper.
At its premier, Jerome Robbins directed and Thomas Schippers conducted. Not a bad pairing! Still it was not a success and has rarely been performed since.
The young artists did what they could, and all performed honorably. For many of them their significant previous opera experience was on stages at such conservatories as Curtis, Indiana, Cincinnati, and the Manhattan School of Music. The Tender Land, with almost no performance history to consult, was a big challenge.
Given that soprano Lindsay Russell (Laurie) and tenor Andrew Stenson (the drifter Martin) have less time than Mimi and Rodolfo to establish love at split-second sight, they manage to develop some chemistry. Both have attractive voices that carry well. The baritone drifter Top (Mark Diamond) shows great potential. He is tall and handsome with a natural stage presence. His voice is strong, with personality. He will make a sexy Count in Figaro who can really woo Susanna. As Laurie’s mother, Stephanie Foley Davis was appropriately beaten down and resigned to her fate on the farm.
Two roles did suffer from the ages of the singers. Joseph Barron struggled to make Grandpa Moss believable. He is too young, and his make-up was too youthful. He could have been married to his granddaughter Laurie. (The great bass Norman Triegle sang this part at the premier.) Rebecca Jo Loeb struggled to make Laurie’s younger sister Beth credible as a goofy teen. Perhaps it was the direction, perhaps the part itself. She seemed simply demented in what is mostly a speaking part.
So, was it worth the effort to present? Stage-worthy American operas are few. Copland is a brand name. A foundation that champions his music provided financial support. Now and then lively surprises can be disinterred from the grave of musical history. Those who scout young voices, or who want to complete their collection of Copland, or want to re-engage with Stewart Robertson, will find some things to like.
But one must conclude that Copland was not an opera composer. At more than one point in the score I thought we were about to be treated to a melody like “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, written two years later. No such luck. Bernstein’s stage genius is nowhere in evidence.
What: Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land
When: July 10, 2010
Who: Glimmerglass Opera
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $126