Tuesday, December 5, 2017

'Fellow Travelers' recording confirms my positive impression from its staged premiere

Given that the romantic emphasis of opera tradition needs new arenas if the genre is to have current vitality, "Fellow Travelers" stakes out a strong claim.

First performed in Cincinnati 18 months ago, the opera now enjoys public permanence in a sensitive new recording on Fanfare Cincinnati (the recording wing of Cincinnati Opera, the work's producer). Adapted by Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce from a 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, "Fellow Travelers" tells the story of a promising but doomed love affair between two men in an era when homosexuality in government was among the red flags lofted by Cold War paranoia.
Hawk (Joseph Lattanzi) eyes Timothy (Aaron Blake) on park bench at Dupont Circle.

Sometimes called "the lavender scare," the labeling of homosexuals as security risks was part of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's intense campaign against communists and others thought to be undermining the republic. "Fellow Travelers" views the peril through an intimate lens. Pierce's libretto sets characters before us who sum up the spectrum of attitudes toward same-sex relationships in the welter of careerism and self-righteous posturing that characterizes Washington, D.C., to this day. The two central characters have their mutual attraction fatally compromised by the reigning atmosphere of repression in the early 1950s.

I saw the second performance of "Fellow Travelers" at the Aronoff Center for the Arts. Visually and acoustically, the production carried the feeling of chamber opera, and that intimacy has been preserved in the recording. The listener must supply the subtle cross-cutting of action and memory that director Kevin Newbury managed skillfully on the stage. But following the libretto, plus noting  the skillful linking of the two planes of action by Spears' music, should remove any confusion for those who know only the two-CD set, which comes from the premiere performances.

The score, indebted to neo-classical Stravinsky, is less angular than the master's and more reliant on flow than the feeling of a mosaic. The opening scene, when Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) opens up conversation with Washington newcomer Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake), establishes a steady pulse, with brief phrases of ornamentation around it. As the sophisticated Fuller draws out the shy Laughlin, there are hints of the contrast in their personalities that stood out for me on repeated hearings: After the departing "Hawk" advises the squeaky-clean Tim to "finish your milk," you hear a sarcastic dig from the orchestra.

Later, a blossoming duet illustrates the lovers' different responses to their first sexual experience. Timothy, grateful that Hawk has opened up a job for him as a Michigan senator's speechwriter, and working to keep his religious qualms at arm's length, rhapsodizes; his partner celebrates "you and me and the boys." The following scene, a monologue for Timothy alone in a church, has some piquant, warm writing for woodwinds as the vocal line signals that the provincial young man is feeling more rapture than the conviction of sin he has been taught.

Strains in the relationship play against a backdrop of the interrogation Hawk undergoes as his promiscuity has aroused official suspicion. His loyalty is under question by Timothy as well. In a scene focusing on the lovers' first spat, there's a significant pause in the musical flow when Tim says to his lover: "You could learn a thing or two, Hawk." It's a clever signal by Spears and Pierce that Tim's naivete is not ironclad, and his moral compass, while no longer pointing toward Catholic doctrine, is firmer than Hawk's. That discrepancy will prove to be the undoing of the relationship.

The slide projection of the lavender scare's victims in the last scene is of course not available to CD listeners. Yet the larger milieu, and the threat that McCarthyism posed to so many people, is indicated by the party and senatorial office scenes. These episodes generate an extra stir, a frisson of excitement, in the orchestra, which seems to be under conductor Mark Gibson's superb control. The dramatic import of the singing comes across in all roles, and the cohesiveness of voices and accompaniment never slackens in this recording.


Yet there is restraint even when the scenario opens up into the larger world. It's an effective reminder that gossip, despite its connection in Washington to large-scale trends and events, operates close to individual lives and does its damage there. The creators of "Fellow Travelers" have managed to keep the focus on the central relationship and not been tempted toward spectacle, even with the opera's setting in the nation's capital at the height of what has been somewhat operatically dubbed "the American century."