ROREM Our Town
By all rights, Ned Rorem’s musical setting of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town should make for a perfect opera. Rorem is America’s finest living vocal composer, a master of the condensation and distillation of art song, with a keen ear for what flatters the voice. Wilder’s play is also a masterpiece of condensation and distillation, a dry and even mordant look at an age of American life which was already passing when he opened his wildly popular play in 1938. Wilder’s text seems full of the open spaces, philosophically and emotionally, that cry out for music, though he himself thought just the opposite: ‘my text “swears at music”’, he said, and it aimed at ‘a shyness about emotion’.
Aaron Copland wrote evocative music for a 1940 movie version of the play, and both he and Leonard Bernstein expressed interest in composing an opera based on the work. They were rebuffed; but in recent years Wilder’s nephew Tappan Wilder has worked hard to open up his uncle’s inheritance, and in 2006 Rorem’s version was given its premiere. It is a chamber opera with a libretto by JD McClatchy, for a large cast and small chorus, and it receives a loving debut on record from Monadnock Music under the direction of Gil Rose.
It’s hard not to be a bit disappointed, if only because expectations were unreasonably high. Much of the work, especially in the first two acts, passes by in pastel-coloured parlando, full of the delicious French dissonances and sliding resolutions that characterise many of Rorem’s songs. Only in the third act, with an aria for the central female character, Emily, placed just minutes before the end of the drama, does Rorem’s full lyrical gift get free rein. Throughout much of the preceding hour and a half, Rorem’s setting seems to strive at the shyness Wilder wanted in his words and emotion. Perhaps, in retrospect, Wilder was right: Our Town only seemed operatic because it accomplished so many things that opera does, but through entirely different means.
But that last aria is worth the wait, soaring and elegiac, and recalling musical ideas from throughout the score that seem to pull the opera together in retrospect. This was the music that everyone imagined when they wondered, why doesn’t Ned Rorem set this text? Soprano Margot Rood delivers it with ease, with both sweetness and regret as she ponders the brevity of existence and our habitual failure to live life while we have life to live. As her romantic partner, tenor Brendan Buckley sings with a light, pliant voice that works well with Rood’s more assertive instrument, juxtaposing youth and callowness with Rood’s more fully dimensional character. The rest of the cast is at least as strong and the orchestral playing, from the Monadnock musicians, is sensitive, supple and delightfully understated. If the opera doesn’t become canonical, perhaps there is an extended solo scene for soprano that might be derived from these last pages of delicate material.