Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Assimilation through suffering: Work and love in early 20th-century urban America are lifted toward grandeur in Cincinnati Opera's world premiere

The title song of "Morning Star" encapsulates much of the new opera's charm. Tune and text firmly evoke the bright view of romance characteristic of Tin Pan Alley, as well as the back story of so many new Americans bringing ambition and idealism to their adoptive homeland.

The Cincinnati Opera production, on the opening night of the world premiere Tuesday, followed through on the song's optimism — a sturdy attitude, challenged by the dangers of hardscrabble immigrant life, which winds through the collaboration of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist William M. Hoffman.

"No one can keep you from me," the couples declare in Act 1 of "Morning Star."
Sung by aspiring songwriter Irving Tashman (Andrew Bidlack) to the youngest daughter of the Latvian widow Becky Felderman, "Morning Star" draws on a genre that mixed gentility and populism in an assimilable manner. Applied to everyday life, this precarious cultural balance was maintained with difficulty by East European Jews living and working on the Lower East Side. Its representative crucible was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 1911, the shaping historical event of the new opera.

A morning star is  the same thing astronomically as an evening star — a bright planet (like Venus) appearing near the horizon just before daybreak or twilight, respectively.

Metaphorically, however, the morning star in Irving's song represents idealization of the beloved and the hope of a stable future together. The evening star focuses on its opposite, the loss of both love and the diminution of hope, as in one of the era's hit songs, "Come Down, My Evening Star." Though not derivative of it, "Morning Star" tugs at the heartstrings just the same, because we are quickly made aware that too much is changing in the lives of the opera's characters for the threat of loss to recede.

The opera is opulent in its vocalism, with a wealth of sopranos that should delight fans of Richard Strauss. Gordon's procedures are much different, however, as he presents a well-connected series of stylistically diverse numbers set against accompaniment textures that are thinner and more contrapuntal than Strauss's, while still being full of color. On Tuesday, all that was richly displayed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and insightfully guided by conductor Christopher Allen.

Tenement dwellers in "Morning Star" sing of drudgery and dreams.
Intermittent spoken dialogue never rises to such prominence as to interfere with the grand-opera aura of the work, although more music, of at least a recitative sort, would have been welcome in the dialogue between Becky and her former tenant Aaron in the second act.

The scene nonetheless has plenty of singing, and is among the production's best staged, as family ghosts reappear and make their presence part of the living characters' reality — which happens in unmusical terms often in real life, doesn't it? There are other clever gatherings of characters to swell the solo voices into brief choral splendor. These are entrances not always dependent on realism. I found this device a refreshing reminder that, especially in times of stress and at close quarters, we live much of our lives among others in a personal phantasmagoria of encounters and departures. The structure of the work, with a Prologue and Epilogue providing narrative frames — the rainy funeral procession and the fire itself, in reverse chronological order — is also quite enthralling.

Projections on a large triangular backdrop, whose shape is a constant reminder of the fatal building, carry contemporary images and help anchor the different time plateaus in place. Fittingly, one of the show's stirring ensembles is a well-placed meditation on time in the second act, leading up to the conflagration of the Epilogue.

A few vocal numbers are particularly effective telling the story, and the singing never stinted on vigor and emotional heft. The long duet between Becky (Twyla Robinson) and resentful daughter Sadie was about the best of them. It was both tense and tender, given the background of the mother's enduring love for all three daughters and her distress at the hard-bitten businesswoman Sadie (Elizabeth Pojanowski) has become. The Verdian curse Sadie had long ago put upon the doomed Esther  looms large.

There were hints of excess in the composition's generous layout. A lengthy paean to the colors of her native South sung by the black peddler Pearl (Jeanine De Bique) seems the sort of set-piece that could well be trimmed out, if it were not for the wider perspective it offers on the disorientation of the immigrant experience.

Gordon's protean writing comprises jazzy numbers with a sardonic edge, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, and perky nods to the bounce of vaudeville and the Yiddish theater. Some pieces seemed to beg for Broadway treatment, but clearly neither the show's creators nor stage director Ron Daniels wanted to go in that direction.

The main exhibit in this category is a first-act song about all things kosher that musical comedy would probably adapt as a big production number with lots of choreography. Staged as it was, however, it got a little ponderous. The song yearned to give its regards to Broadway, but that would have taken the opera too far from its proper realm.

The libretto teetered on that boundary now and then, too. Hoffman's slangy wit salutes the sass and snappy rhymes of the great Jewish lyricists. Sometimes the close-order drill of his rhyming was obtrusive: A complaining husband compares his wife's chatter to the "cluck, cluck" of a duck, but every toddler knows that hens cluck, ducks quack.

Hoffman's muse soars as well, often successfully. Yet one ostensibly wise utterance of the long-suffering Becky seems questionable on both philosophical and dramatic grounds. I'll paraphrase it as her pronouncement that all God commands is that we don't hurt one another. I doubt that any strong-minded mother of that era, whether Jewish or Christian, would be likely to subscribe to such a reductive theology.

A longer list of requirements from the Lord was embedded in the culture that held families together as much as possible in this opera's turbulent milieu. Simply not hurting people entails no obligation to forge and sustain bonds we all need, leaving us with little more than the lonely fantasy that Lillian Russell addressed to the celestial light in 1902:

My evening star I wonder who you are,
Set up so high like a diamond in the sky.
No matter what I do
I can't go up to you,
So come down from there, my evening star.

But the authentic uplift behind the searing family fragmentation in "Morning Star" suggests that the enduring promise of the morning star can prevail. That hope feels all the more solid when embodied in the generally well-integrated and artfully demonstrative manner this production will present through July 19 at the SCPA's Corbett Theater.


[Photos by Philip Groshong]