Our American Cousin
* Janna Baty (mezzo, Laura Keene)
* Alan Schneider (tenor, Harry Hawk)
* Aaron Engelbreth (baritone, Jack Mathews)
* Drew Poling (baritone, Ned Emerson)
* Janice Edwards (mezzo, Lady Moutchessington)
* Hillarie O'Toole (soprano, Gussy Moutchessington)
* Donald Wilkinson (baritone, Abraham Lincoln)
* Angela Hines Gooch (soprano, Mary Lincoln)
* Tom O'Toole (bass-baritone, John Wilkes Booth)
* Daniel Kamalic (baritone, Dr. Leale)
The Amherst College Choir
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
BMOP 1005 Total time: 132:20 (2 CDs)
Summary for the Busy Executive: The play's the thing.
Don't expect the Tom Taylor comedy Lincoln attended the night he got
shot. The opera tells the story of the Lincoln assassination seen through
the viewpoints mainly of the actors in Ford's Theater. The effect comes
close to what it would be like if Hamlet were told by the company of
players. One notes a lot of talk about the Founding Fathers these days,
and other than the cynical manipulations of those figures and their
thought according to whatever party line, it probably goes through and
over most people's heads. Modern us is separated from that time by the
Civil War and its aftermath, particularly the election of Hayes. The
death of Lincoln was also the death of the thought and the way of thinking
of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson. We became a much different
country: more corporate, more sanctimonious and self-centered, more
beholden to money, smaller. That's a lot for one opera to deal with,
but Eric Sawyer and his librettist, John Shoptaw, take it on.
Shoptaw supplies a brilliant libretto. The action takes place on three
different levels: the actors' lives backstage, the play itself, and the
audience. Furthermore, these levels mix with one another. Significantly,
I think, only one character wanders through all three worlds -- John
Wilkes Boothe, like Cain never at home in any of them. Shoptaw's language
is at once appropriate to each character and richly allusive to events
outside the immediate plot, somewhat like an actor tailoring "ad libs"
for the new town he's in. In fact, precisely that happens during the
performance, as the hero's birthplace changes from Taylor's Vermont to
Lincoln's "Hillynoise." A subtler use of image comes to the fore in the
actors' backstage arias. Harry Hawk, who plays the American cousin,
Asa, has learned of the death in battle of his paid substitute, thus
fulfilling a disquieting recurring dream:
I'm walking a corduroy road.
The moon is cut in two.
A whole blue field is falling,
thickly and quietly,
like melting snow.
The corduroy road of course refers to Sherman's march through Georgia,
where the Union army had to pull heavy equipment through muddy routes,
which they "paved" with logs. "Cut in two" refers to the country torn
apart, the "blue field" to the fallen Union soldiers, with the Whitman-like
"thickly and quietly" ("incessantly, softly") afterthought. Shoptaw's
a real poet.
Sawyer fails to reach anywhere near the same level. Not one idea
really grabs you. Technically, Sawyer has demonstrated capability,
but not inspiration. The meat of the libretto simply goes by, like the
"crawl" at the bottom of a screen on a cable news channel. The musical
characterizations are bland because the idiom is bland. Simply compare
Sawyer's audience with Mussorgsky's crowds in Boris to measure the
artistic difference. Sawyer actually does best setting the Taylor play.
It's where the opera consistently becomes dramatically alert and alive.
For the most part, the performances don't help. Janna Batty as Laura
Keene alone manages to make something of her part, to imply that the
music means something more than what Sawyer actually wrote. Gil Rose
and his orchestra (Sawyer uses essentially a pit band) do well with what
they get, but they can't save the opera. A wonderful libretto, wasted.
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