Reprinted from yesterday's late edition.
I imagine that how one reacts to The Houston Grand Opera production of "Of Mice and Men," which opened a three-week run at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night, would depend upon how one feels about the Steinbeck novel and/or play on which the libretto is based. If you like the Steinbeck, you might well enjoy the opera. If, like myself, you find the book dreary or worse, the opera will seem a bore. The point is that composer Carlisle Floyd's music adds mothing to the text worth adding, though it does underscore its melodramatic tawdriness.
The best thing to be said for the production is that it boasts a good cast of uniformly good actors, so that whatever the merits of the Steinbeck, they are translated with convincing naturalism in this Houston staging. Even Frank Corsaro's ham-fisted direction has a certain suitability to the crassness of the plot.
The musical side of the performance is another story. The singing, acceptable for the most part if rarely better, is almost superfluous, given the meager rewards of Floyd's score.
"It's hard to understand why an opera composer would choose a subject so deficient in opportunities for lyricism or characterization. Floyd's impluse seems to have been to identify George and Lennie, the pathetic farmhand protagonists, with Puccini's Mimi and Rudolfo - lovers who spat and made up, sad sacks who dream of better days. At least, that's what's suggested by the maudlin musical treatment.
But there's nothing approaching Puccini's lyrical flair or historionic ingenuity here, and Floyd's orchestral writing is so often stagnant it grows ludicrous. As for musical characterization, there just isn't any. There's no musical differentiation between one role and the next, only stereotyped emotional formulsas for all.
Nor is there a single passage of melodic distinction from start to finish, but merely a string of Menottiesque platitudes. The closest the music comes to an independent assertion of its own is a trio for George, Lennie and Candy in the second act, as they plan elatedly the purchase of their dream farm. The peice is defeated, though, by a rhythmic monotony that nips the luricism in the bud.
Daniel Sullivan as George, Robert Moulson as Lennie, Sharon Daniels as Curley are all satisfactory within these limitations. The most notable voices, though, belong to bass Jack Bittner and baritone Warren Ellsworth in the secondary roles of Candy and Slim.
Problems with stage amplification rendered the words unintelligible through the first act, but matters improved greatly thereafter in this respect. Salvatore Tagliarino's set, a disquieting compromise between stylization and realism, rests on a platform that pushes much of the action far upstage for no apparent reason.
Floyd reportedly prefers the term "music drama" for his work, rather than opera, which suggests that he regards dramatic elements as primary. But why music at all, then? What he's given us is more like a soundtrack than an opera score, and the drama would be better served without it.