Opera

Rorem's 'Our Town,' Wistfully Wilder

Murry Sidlin conducted a tightly paced production of the Washington premiere of
Murry Sidlin conducted a tightly paced production of the Washington premiere of "Our Town" at Catholic University. (2003 Photo, Catholic University Of America)
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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Ned Rorem's opera "Our Town" opened at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre Thursday in a pungent production -- Washington's first -- based on Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town," a quintessentially American classic. The performance was part of Catholic's "Wilder and Wilder" Festival of the Arts, for which the opera is being given alternately with the play. Wilder's nephew and literary executor, Tappan Wilder, was present for the premiere, as was Rorem's librettist, J.D. McClatchy.

Conducted by Murry Sidlin, Thursday's tightly paced production (with brightly colored period costumes) preserves Wilder's telescopic condensation of time -- its unforgiving drive through three acts strung out in brief, rapidly changing vignettes. As Wilder dictated, the university's production offers a bare stage without scenery and only emblematic ladders, stairs, chairs and tables for props.

The drama depicts a seemingly bucolic small New England town a century ago, though Rorem has commented wryly that the play portrays an overly idyllic era that was past history even in Wilder's turn-of-the-century New Hampshire.

The octogenarian Rorem, although author of sometimes scandalous diaries and essays of rapier wit, has musically re-created "Our Town" with the innocent freshness of Copland's plein-air music envisioning the American West. Rorem's score accordingly probes gently dissonant rather than harsh, strident harmonies; likewise, it remains comfortably tonal with airy, kaleidoscopic textures and a singability as fluid as Leonard Bernstein's melodic style.

Rorem treats the singers to floating, supremely vocal lines, with deliciously mellifluous ornaments accentuating dramatically charged words. Supported by a confident, well-coordinated orchestra, the cast -- soloists and chorus alike -- was uniformly strong and precise in ensemble. As stage manager, the most prominent role, Eric Gramatges sang with authority, ease and warmth. Diana Bryan's Emily came off with ebullience, agility and true-to-life emotional expression. John Murry, as George, presented a rather bland definition of a sensitive youth facing two formidable rites of passage -- marriage and widowerhood.

The opera will be repeated tonight.

-- Cecelia Porter


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