Aaron Copland’s music is so familiar, so iconic in the way it stands for American identity, that we take it for granted. The composer’s embrace of pioneer stories from America’s early history, at a time when the United States was becoming the dominant world superpower, can feel like kitsch now.
A production of his failed opera “The Tender Land” by the In Series, heard Saturday at Gala Hispanic Theatre, was an opportunity to appreciate that Copland’s music is more radical than its reputation might seem. Although the libretto, by Copland’s onetime lover Erik Johns, grinds to a dramatic halt trying to reach its conclusion, the music is often of exceptional beauty.
Copland created the work, beginning in 1952, for the NBC Television Opera Workshop, a program that in today’s pop-culture-saturated world seems too improbable to have existed. Inspired by Depression-era photographs by Walker Evans and set somewhere in the American heartland, “The Tender Land” concerns a girl, Laurie, on the eve of becoming the first in her family to graduate from high school. Soprano Melissa Chávez captured the character’s emotional volubility, her transparent tone and bell-like high notes powering the character’s hopeful first aria and the transports of her love.
Tenor Nicholas Carratura did not have control of the highest notes sung by Martin, the itinerant worker who becomes Laurie’s sweetheart. Baritone Andrew Thomas Pardini was more confident as Top, the less sympathetic of the pair of laborers, and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon had a small but pretty sound as Ms. Moss, Laurie’s protective mother. Steven Scott Mazzola directed an effective production, in front of a modest set evoking the Dust Bowl-afflicted prairie, designed by Osbel Susman-Peña. The small orchestra, with five string players and three woodwinds supporting the piano, was not always together, but conductor Stanley Thurston kept a calm head.
Downey is a freelance writer.
The Tender Land Oct. 24 and 25 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-204-7763. www.inseries.org. $45.