SAWYER: 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 (F) (DDD) TT: 132:20.
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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
was also the death of the thought and the way of thinking of Adams,
Jefferson, and Madison. We became a much different country: 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
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
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.
S.G.S. (October 2008)