Giuseppe Verdi once said that "anything can be set to music, but not everything will be effective." Last night's world premiere of Thomas Cain's opera "Jack" did not prove the Italian master wrong.
The libretto is an adaptation by the composer of Ionesco's play. Following this premiere at the Publick Playhouse in Bladensburg, Cain said that what he found most appealing in Ionesco was his fusion of comedy and seriousness. One problem with "Jack" is that the comedy is elusive, the seriousness shallow. And the score's inoffensively tonal eclecticism did not rescue the evening.
After a short Stravinskian prelude, the curtain rises to show Jack being badgered by his parents and his sister. A recitative relieved by hints of melody rhythmically leads to Jack's eventual vocal entrance: an aria with ensemble on the phase "I adore hash-brown potatoes." It was not as funny as it sounds.
His parents then decide that he should marry, and eventually a threenosed bride enters to a Mahler fanfare, followed by a bouncy rag quintet reminiscent of the jazz episodes of Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti." The young woman ravishes Jack after a lyrical outburst that is the score's strongest moment; then she dies. A bleak sextet brings down the curtain.
The disjointed libretto obscured the action but highlighted the awkward vocal settings. The piece sounded like opera in translation, with its eclectic flavor as the only unfortunate sign that "Jack" is in the mainstream of contemporary American opera. As a matter of fact, Stanley Silverman's recent "Madame Adare" came to mind more than once, but that is itself quite derivative.
Judith Borczuk soared as Roberta the bride, her revelation of rolls of red silk and flesh being one of the more memorable musical and dramatic moments. The rest of the cast was competent, with remarkably fine playing from the 12 musicians. "Jack" will be repeated tonight at 8.