Times are hard during the Depression. And a rite of passage, high school graduation, is just around the bend. What's a pretty young country girl to do when she falls in love with a hired hand? In Catholic University's current production, director Michael Scarola has slanted the story to leave that an open question in Aaron Copland's only full-fledged opera, "The Tender Land." Conducted artfully by Kate Tamarkin, an excellent all-student cast and orchestra performed this musical paean to America's rural past Thursday night at Ward Recital Hall. And what an engrossing blend it was of high art and sheer entertainment.

Scarola's imaginative staging and Murry Sidlin's chamber version of the opera drove home a sense of reality drama. The staging fully utilized the aisles and shoved the audience space into the action: To open Act 2, the entire cast stormed onto the stage while intermission chatter was still at full force. Country-inspired dancing and props (most conspicuously quilts) and true-to-life stage action idealized the onetime everyday in America's heartland. Period dress and the very simplicity of the set (a suggested barn and farmhouse against a sky-blue backdrop) captured a phase of genuine American folklife -- the driving force of all Copland's plein-air works, among them the ballets "Rodeo" and "Appalachian Spring."

With voices of full, vibrant expressivity, soprano Jessie Sutherland as Laurie and tenor Issacha Savage as Martin made an impassioned couple, mezzo Kristin Green a commanding Ma Moss. Brian Cali was an impressive Top and Andrew Adelsberger a persuasive Grandpa Moss. Teresa Scalise was an ebullient Beth; John Sean Murray, Judy Bennett, Diana Bryan and Patrick Davey led a responsive support cast. The production also profited from Eric F. Lichtfuss Jr.'s sets, John P. Woodey's lighting, Eleanor Dicks's costumes and Patrick O'Neill's choreography.

The opera will be repeated tonight and tomorrow.

-- Cecelia Porter