Thursday 7 June 2012

Our Town at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Ned Rorem's opera, Our Town, was premiered in 2006 when the composer was 83. It was commissioned by Indiana University and so it seems appropriate that the work's European premiere took place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. We caught the final performance on 6 June.

Rorem is best known for his songs, though his output includes operas, symphonies, piano concertos, choral and chamber music. He is also the author of a highly regarded series of diaries.

Our Town is based in the play by Thornton Wilder which was written in 1938. Rorem collaborated with the poet  J. D. McClatchy on transforming the play into an opera. Wilder's play was intended as a counter to the excessive realism of contemporary American theatre. Wilder intended the play to be played on a bare stage with the actors miming all action with no props. There is a stage manager who controls things and who sets each scene. The play opens with the stage manager firmly in the present, before the setting is moved to the small New Hampshire village of Grovers Corner in 1901.

Sky Ingram in Our Town, at Guildhall School of Music and Drama 2012
Sky Ingram (c. Clive Barda)
Rorem and McClatchy kept this basic structure in the opera, remaining true to Wilder's play. The language of the play is simple and direct, so it lends itself to operatic setting. Director Stephen Medcalf and designer (set and lighting) Simon Corder also preserved Wilder's intentions. They set the action on a plain platform with just a row of seats (like church pews) at the back. The auditorium of Guildhall's Silk Street Theatre was re-configured to give a playing area surrounded by the audience on three sides, with the orchestra in a pit in front of the playing area. Costumes (by Susannah Henry) were also in period.

Rorem's setting of the text is quite plain. Wilder's play is about the beauty of small things, Grover's Corner is a place where little happens. So that Rorem gives his characters a sort of continuous arioso, setting the dialogue quite naturally. It is only on special occasions that the music flowers; there are hymns for church services, choir practice and during the wedding service Rorem allows himself a hiatus when Emily and George have a moment of anxiety about the coming marriage.

The first two acts of the opera cover the development of the relationship between Emily (aged 14 in 1901) and George. Emily should have been played by Sky Ingram but she had a throat infection so that Ingram acted the part and Lucy Hall sang it. George was played by Luis Gomes. We are introduced to their parents; Dr. and Mrs Gibbs (Barnaby Rea and Kathryn McAdam), Mr and Mrs Webb (Ben McAteer and Emily Blanch). Dr Gibbs is the town doctor, and Mr Webb the editor of the newspaper. Then there is the town gossip, Mrs Soames (Anna Starushkevych) and the alcoholic choirmaster (Jorge Navarro-Colorado).

Stuart Laing in Our Town, Guildhall School of Music and Drama 2012
Stuart Laing (c. Clive Barda)
Each of the characters is sketched in, in short vignettes. The action in act 1 stays in 1901, as we get to know the characters. Then in act 2 we move forward to 1904, for George and Emily's wedding, with an interlude in the middle in 1903 when they first realise that they were meant for each other.

Controlling all this is the stage manager (Stuart Laing). His is the largest role in the opera, he introduces each scene, interrupts the action and takes the roles of the minister and the owner of the soda fountain. The stage manager is a modern character, he is in our time. When Laing introduced the opera, one of the many ASM's brought him an ipad which he showed the audience the plans of Grover's Corner. These were projected onto screens around the auditorium. Throughout the opera the screens displayed text and images related to the action. Medcalf and Corder also included extra text from the play which had been cut from the opera.

Deliberately setting us at one remove from the action, Rorem and McClatchy also introduced questioners who posed questions for the stage manager from their places in the audience. And the stage manager and the other cast answered these questions.

Everything is sung. Rorem's vocal lines are evocative but singer friendly, the musical language has the sound of American music from such composers as Copland. Rorem uses the orchestra to support and to comment; there are musical interludes and the orchestral material is very germane to the whole atmosphere. Without the flowering of the vocal line into arias and moments of contemplation, it is through the orchestra that Rorem allows us to hear the background to the characters. Only during the wedding ceremony does Rorem hold things up, giving both George and Emily big scenes in which they are allowed to give full expression of all their anxieties and hopes, things which are normally kept button up.

Popular music finds its way into the piece. There are hymns, which Rorem harmonises in a traditional but interesting manner but surrounds by orchestral commentary, hints in the orchestra of Handel's Largo and parlour piano music and, most hilariously, a deconstructed version of Mendelssohn's Wedding March which finishes act 2.

Barnaby Rea and  Kathryn McAdam in Our Town, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Barnaby Rea and  Kathryn McAdam c.Clive Barda
So far, so charming. Rorem follows Wilder and allows the small things to count. Rorem's music allows the musical Grover's Corner to take its place in the universe. And if the piece had finished here, it would have been a nicely crafted piece of small town life, highly evocative.

But act 3 opens in the Grover's Corner cemetery in 1913 and we are introduced to those who have died, Mrs Soames, Simon Stimson and Mrs Gibbs. There is a chorus of the dead. And here, Rorem allows himself some leeway. The living might be limited by the every-day, but the dead are not and Rorem's music for them is more lyrical, more melismatic. We have Emily's funeral, she has died in childbirth.

Emily joins the dead but is not ready and asks if she can go back. The stage manager allows her to return, but warns her that she will not want to stay. The scene changes to 1900, Emily's 13th birthday. Emily returns but as predicted, cannot cope. She knows too much, she is aware of what will happen and cannot understand why the living are so bound up in the hustle and bustle of the everyday that they miss the true value of life. So Emily returns to the dead, night falls on Grover's Corner and the stage manager brings things to a close.

For the scene of Emily's birthday, Medcalf and Corder allowed themselves one divergence from the no-set, no prop rule. For this scene there were realistic props and real food as the family sat down to breakfast, as if to emphasise the gap between the living and the dead.

Our Town is a curious and evocative piece, which succeeds in its aims, I think. Rorem's style is not overtly demonstrative, he doesn't thrust his music into your face. Coming to the final performance the singers had obviously grown accustomed to the style and were able to bring an easy naturalism to the sung dialogue, it sounded as if it was all meant to be like that. But the characters are rarely allowed moments to express themselves. I was impressed by the way Rea, McAdam, McAteer and Blanch as the Gibbs and the Webbs were able to express and create strongly differentiated characters. All four were playing characters far older than themselves but, in different ways, managed to bring gravity and weight to their roles without ever seeming caricatured. In a big cast, they ensured that you know who was whom, what they were doing and why. No mean feat.

This was true of the other two characters in town, Jorge Navarro-Colorado as Simon Stimson and Anna Starushkevych as Mrs Soames; Navarro-Colorado had to spend almost all of his stage time drunk and Starushkevych was a gossip who got into everything. The only other named characters were three of George's friends (Joshua Mills, Matthew McGuigan, Adam L Sullivan) whose role was to tease him and be constantly playing baseball.

I have nothing but admiration for Ingram, Hall and Gomes. Gomes brought an easy naturalness and a winning charm to George which made you understand why Emily came to love him. Ingram looked good as Emily and I longed to be able to hear her sing the role, to make the character complete. Hall, who sang from the pit, came into the role at short notice, but her performance was musically complete and displayed not sign of haste. A brilliant achievement.

Stuart Laing, as the stage manager, had by far the biggest role and the hardest. At times it was difficult to tell that he was playing a role, so easily did he fit into the shape of the music and drama. He chatted to the audience, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing it to music.

The decision to play without a proscenium with the audience on three sides of the acting area was, I think, a mistake. Whilst it worked well dramatically and might be effective for the play, for an opera it meant that voices tended to come and go. Laing particularly suffered as, whilst he wandered round talking to the audience, his voice lost focus. Also there were occasional balance problems, inevitable as singers turned away from parts of the audience. This all meant that the words did not come over as well as they could have done. That said, the young singers made a sterling effort and the results were effective; I just feel that with a traditional stage layout, it could have worked even better.

The orchestra under Clive Timms (head of opera studies at Guildhall until March this year) had a big role to play and did so with aplomb. Perhaps there were moments when the playing had a fuzziness about it which was not completely appropriate. Rorem's writing has something of neo-classical clarity about it and is particularly unforgiving.

This was a brave and exciting venture, which came off brilliantly. Timms, Medcalf and their young cast enabled us to experience Rorem's opera just as he might have wanted it,

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