A wry critic once said of Milton's "Paradise Lost" that "No man wished it longer." Somehow that comment comes to mind after 2 1/2 hours of Carlisle Floyd's "Willie Stark" -- the only product of Western culture in which one can see a superbly trained opera singer swell his lungs in full Puccini gusto and robustly intone: "Friends, rednecks an' fellow hicks, let us exalt ourselves! "
The musical drama adapted from Robert Penn Warren's novel, "All the King's Men," played the Kennedy Center Opera House last spring; tonight it opens PBS' "Great Performances" season on Channel 26 at 8. In the transition to television, the three-act production has lost about 30 minutes in length, which may mean a gain in audience appeal.
Composer/librettist Floyd's creation has neither the melodic charisma of a musical nor the grand thematic sweep of opera. Those who can't adjust to the hybrid form will soon find themselves craving the cheerful cacophony of a Ty-D-Bowl commercial. Those who can will discover some stirring performances. Baritone Timothy Nolen is a versatile marvel in the title role of a southern governor (loosely modeled on Huey Long) whose corrupt demagoguery is balanced against his genuine love of the common people. Mezzo Jan Curtis brings a feisty alley cat zeal to Sadie Burke, the governor's long-suffering and love-struck lieutenant. Alan Kays serves well in the tenor role of Jack Burden, Willie's aide and eventual assassin; and soprano Julia Conwell is bright and beautiful, if slightly brittle, as Anne Stanton, Jack's fiance but Willie's girl.
Unhappily, the singers' talents often overmatch the material. There are some splendid musical moments -- among them, "Come Back, Willie," Nolen's lyrical reverie of lost innocence in Act One -- and occasionally ambitious language, as in "the law's a single-bed blanket." But the general effect is of grinding recitative in which the orchestral embellishment urges a drama which the remorselessly prosaic lyrics simply cannot bear.
Tonight's program was taped at Jones Hall in Houston with the Houston Symphony. Squeezing the scope of opera into video, with its tight compositions and frequent close-ups, reveals Nolen's considerable acting talent without compromising the handsome vigor of Harold Prince's direction. And if television's nearsighted focus makes Curtis' operatic gestures look overwrought and turns Kays' heartbreak scene to viscous melodrama, it also accentuates the bloody pathos of the ending and, of course, permits this most democratic of stories to meet a wide public. Willie Stark would have approved.