By Greg Sandow
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 5, 2005
The world premiere of "An American Tragedy," a new piece by the composer Tobias Picker at the Metropolitan Opera, was a big event for insiders, among them the directors of other opera companies, singers' managers and classical music critics from around the country. They all turned out in force Friday, hoping the piece would be a triumph and help revive the operatic repertoire.
But there wasn't any triumph. "An American Tragedy" is of course adapted from Theodore Dreiser's classic 1925 novel about Clyde Griffiths, who is raised in a religious family but gets corrupted by ambition. He meets Roberta, a simple working girl, and gets her pregnant. He then prefers a sassy, richer girl named Sondra; he lets Roberta drown in a boating accident, is put on trial for murder and dies in the electric chair.
In Dreiser's hands, this story raises larger issues about the values Americans believe in. Neither wealth nor religion come off well. But the opera doesn't seem to touch these bigger themes. Picker and his librettist, Gene Scheer, may have intended something deeper, but they seem to simply mine the novel -- or maybe strip-mine it -- for local color and melodrama. For local color there's a church service, a gathering of businessmen and a vaudeville show, all of which feel like big production numbers in a musical, even if the music is more complex and classical. And for melodrama there are confrontations among the leading characters, with high and often overwrought emotion.
Picker sets all this to music in a somewhat lurid operatic style, with orchestral tumult and lots of high notes for the singers. But what he's best at is something smaller, the creation of interesting and varied details, among them unexpected rhythms in the orchestra. He's not as good at writing vocal melody, and apart from music that evokes the hush of flowing water in the boating scene, he doesn't seem to have an ear for mood or atmosphere.
Thus it's not surprising that the production numbers, which benefit from lively detail, come off best, and that the dramatic scenes -- with all the characters singing in more or less the same way, and no great difference in mood between one scene and another -- don't have much flavor. They seem very much alike; they're also somewhat shapeless, and just a little crude. Worse still, the piece unfolds at a ponderous, slow pace, with every plot twist telegraphed. The hush of flowing water, unsettling and rapt, is all the introduction the boating scene should need. And yet Picker starts with obvious, foreboding chords. "Something terrible will happen!" he's telling us. But we already knew that.
In another scene, Roberta -- pregnant and, she thinks, abandoned -- mourns; meanwhile Clyde and Sondra murmur words of love and kiss. The irony is inescapable, and unhappily remains so, for endless minutes, as the scene continues. We get the point.
The Met produced this spectacle, which runs through Dec. 28, with lots of care. Francesca Zambello directed very sensibly, on a semi-abstract set by Adrianne Lobel, which allows the action to unfold on two levels at once, so that Roberta mourns alone, while Clyde and Sondra kiss in their own separate space, above her.
The cast is stellar, even lavish, offering three of the world's top operatic singers, Dolora Zajick, Susan Graham and Patricia Racette. Racette is somewhat wasted as Roberta, a role that seems mostly blank, but she does everything that anybody could to make it work. Zajick, as Clyde's mother, is colossal, a force of nature whose voice sounds as it if might be able to move mountains; Graham, as Sondra, is vivid, even funny, and also really touching at the end, when of course she's sadly disillusioned.
Only Nathan Gunn, as Clyde, doesn't make much effect. He simply doesn't seem to have an operatic voice, and he undermines himself by often sounding strained when he tries to be emotional. Conductor James Conlon shapes the music firmly, though the orchestra, which needs more time to really get to know the piece, understandably sounds as if it's still feeling its way through some of the more difficult moments.
All of which leaves me frustrated. Picker seems sincere. But like the people the Met needs to rebuild its audience, I do more than go to opera. Among much else, I've watched "The Sopranos." So for a moment, let's break down the walls of the opera house, and ask how anything like "An American Tragedy" -- anything this slow and elementary -- would be received on HBO. The answer seems obvious. Nobody would have any patience with it.
And that leads to a question: Why should we have high standards for popular culture and much lower ones for something in the arts? If the Met wants to rebuild its shrinking audience, this is something it might ponder.