Carlisle Floyd has made it easy to leave his musical setting of "Of Mice and Men" with different opinions about its total worth. In putting music to John Steinbeck's novel, later made into a play, Floyd has retained the feeling of bare emotion that dominates the play.
For the most part he works in a parlando style that highlights the text with few excursions into lyrical expansion. Obviously sympathetic to the play's central figure, the social misfit Lennie, a hulking man whose gentle inclinations are tragically counter-balanced by uncontrollable, destructive urges, Floyd alternates between scenes that last too long, as between Lennie and George by themseleves, and ensembles in which trios or larger groups work to alleviate the feeling of impending tragedy.
When lyrical expression is appropriate, as it certainly is when Lennie and George discuss the farm they hope to own someday, and when Lennie and Curley's wife sing their dreams, Floyd finds ways of letting the music relax for a time. And he makes good use of the ranch hands as an excuse for attractvie male choral sound.
Where his music drama, which is another way of saying opera, lets us down is in the climactic momments where we need something more: a larger accent to the violent move, a stronger thrust to the ultimate tragedy. Floyd shows us clearly how much easier it is for society simply to ignore its misfits who do not fit into the standard moral, physical and social pattern of the times than to deal with them constructively. But his music rarely adds a new dimension to Steinbeck's drama.
Yet in precisely some of the those ways that music can heighten an emotional situation, Floyd has intensified Steinbeck's situations. It may be through the simple fact that it requires longer to sing a line than to speak it, or through the mechanics of music's pauses and prolongations. Somehow we understand Curley's wife better after we hear her sing "I'll be famous and I'll be adored," then if she simple spoke the line.
The Houston production at the Kennedy Center is effective in Frank Corsaro's driection as it is in the simple directness with which it gets to the point. Slow in starting, the piece builds up sympathy for Lennie and great tension as the inevitable tragedy finally occurs.
With the experienced singers in a cast, headed by Robert Moulson's flawless Lennieand excellent singing all around, there is no need for amplifying the sound. "Of Mice and Men" has rolled up a notable history in its 40 years, including a memorable film with music by Aaron Copland. Floyd's operatic venture is eminently worth seeing.