|Aaron Blake and Joseph Lattanzi in Fellow Traveler (photo by Jill Steinberg)|
Our disappointment in contemporary American Opera has been altered twice this year, once by The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe Opera last August, and last night by Fellow Traveler, receiving its New York premiere by the Prototype Festival at John Jay College. How interesting that Kevin Newbury directed both operas! The production originated with the Cincinnati Opera.
Gregory Spears' music struck us as far more than "interesting", a word we use when we don't know what else to say! This music was luscious and accessible, underscoring the subtext and emotional content of each scene. Varying moods struck us, from erotic to sinister. George Manahan's conducting of the American Composers Orchestra was thoughtful and we were particularly impressed by the winds.
If the vocal lines were not "memorable", at least they were not irritatingly jagged. They sang well and an aria for the baritone stood out. We also loved the overlapping vocal lines for the ensembles.
Not having read the eponymous book by Thomas Mallon, we are not sure how much labor went into adapting it; Greg Pierce's libretto made sense and wisely kept to short punchy phrases which matched the music well in rhythm and length of phrase.
The story takes place in the McCarthy period--mid 20th c.--as remote to us as the periods in which our beloved 18th and 19th c. operas are set. This remoteness was not a problem in the relevance department since the crazy ideas which propel politics are still extant. Every generation projects its fear and hate onto some group. Then it was "commies" and "pansies". Now it is immigrants. Plus ca change...
The love affair between the young innocent reporter Timothy Laughlin and the charming but fickle State Department employee Hawkins Fuller began on a park bench with a not-so-subtle pickup. Rising star tenor Aaron Blake was as fine in his acting as he was in his singing. His character's internal conflict is the same one that has fueled opera stories (and stories in general) since forever. He has desires. As an Irish Catholic, he believes them to be sinful. He goes to confession for awhile, then goes no more.
His Teflon seducer is the glib and careless "Hawk" (for which one can read "chicken hawk"-- and if you don't understand what that is, ask us to explain); barihunk Joseph Lattanzi used his gorgeous instrument and confident stage presence to give a complete portrait of a man who just can't commit. He is a perfect foil for the awkward and shy reporter; he uses his power to get Laughlin a job and then gets him fired in order to end the affair and earn Laughlin's hate.
Although the libretto is mainly "conversational", Mr. Lattanzi had a monologue toward the end which could stand alone as an audition or competition piece. It was filled with mood and color as he expresses his inability to be the man Laughlin needs him to be.
In the role of the best friend Mary, we could not have asked for a better soprano than Devon Guthrie. Ms. Guthrie's singing and acting were exemplary and we totally believed her character, a good friend to all and a good woman who cannot abide the dirty dealing in the State Department.
Soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez was excellent in the role of Lucy, the woman Fuller marries. As the irritating gossipy Miss Lightfoot, Alexandra Schoeny gave the audience a few chuckles.
Supporting roles were played by Vernon Hartman as Senator Potter, a war hero; by Marcus DeLoach in several roles; Christian Pursell in several roles; and Paul Scholten as Tommy McIntyre.
The story had a profound effect on us as a love story gone wrong; the situation politically only served to add to the effect. Here in New York we no longer think about gays being blackmailed and persecuted. The term "commie" has lost its power. But it isn't lost on us that there are parts of the world where our freedoms have not yet arrived. Probably there are pockets of fundamentalism in our very own country that suffer from the same predicament. Let us not get lazy in our struggle for freedom for all citizens. And for immigrants too!
Set designer Victoria "Vita" Tzykun employed some large moveable units in various arrangements; they became the roof of a post office or files in an office, as needed. Laughlin's tiny lodging comprised a narrow bed with a college pennant alongside and a hot plate for warming soup. This told us everything we needed to know about his situation in life.
Costuming by Paul Carey and Hair and Makeup Design by Anne Ford-Coates were appropriate to the 1950's and not particularly flattering. (Does any decade's fashion look good in retrospect?)
English diction was on the whole quite good, although there were times when we were happy to have the projected titles.
We ardently hope that contemporary American opera will move in the direction of good storytelling with accessible music and powerful emotional content. Bravi to everyone who contributed to this success.
(c) meche kroop