The Tender Land: Copland’s look at small-town life
CLINTON TWP., Mich.–There are many ways to appraise Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land. You could discuss its theme, a light parable about those who seek out the new, and those who fear it. Assess its quality as a smaller-scale opera intended for young singers. Write a mini-treatise on how it fits in the series of Copland works inspired by the wide open spaces far west of his native New York.
Michigan Opera Theatre’s fine new production offers a chance to look at this somewhat lesser known piece from many angles. But most of all, it is a beautifully rendered, well sung, visually appealing night (or day) of music theatre.
The show kicked off with performances this weekend at Macomb’s Center for the Performing Arts, to be followed up by the Heinz C. Prechter Educational and Performing Arts Center in Taylor the weekend of March 19 and 20.
Copland’s score on first hearing is peppered with sections in classic Copland musical style, interspersed with some lesser sequences. The cast and orchestra hit all the highlights and sustain it well throughout.
The simple but gorgeous production design by Monika Essen and lighting by Marcus Dilliard present a peach-colored dream of a Midwestern farm. In this time and place we meet the Moss family, their friends, and two strangers.
Laurie, played with sweet smarts by Angela Theis, is a young woman at high-school graduation eve, with a serious case of senioritis and a slight case of rebellion and wanderlust. Raehann Bryce-Davis as her Ma, presents a fine mezzo voice, although she was slightly overpowered by the orchestra in her early scene. Brent Michael Smith is crusty Grandpa Moss. (Although the youth of the cast is most evident in this performer’s not quite grandfatherly look.)
Along come two drifters to this isolated farmhouse, folks with “two strong backs, four strong hands” looking for odd jobs. Laurie meets them first, and intrigued, flirts with them, unafraid.
Harry Greenleaf is a scene-stealer as Top, the gregarious guy who always let’s you know how he feels, whether it’s a liking for that pretty girl, a dislike of work or just a plain gnawing pain from not enough to eat. “Damn my belly for being hungry,” he spits out.
Tenor Joseph Michael Brent is Martin, the more serious of the two, who, as the day passes into night, finds himself falling for Laurie, and making unrealistic promises.
Complicating it further are the stories circulating of two men who’ve attacked other young girls – a charge Ma eventually throws at Martin and Top. Copland himself related to these outsiders. He was a gay Jewish man of the 20th century. During the time of the opera’s creation he’d been pulled before Joseph McCarthy’s despicable witch-hunting committee, which cost him, among other things, the opportunity to have his “Lincoln Portrait“ performed at Dwight Eisenhower‘s inauguration.
And so this story of fearing strangers and the unfamiliar – as relevant as ever today – has more dramatic potential than is mined here. The opera’s libretto, written by Erik Johns under penname Horace Everett, seems to pass over the eventual accusations and resolution too quickly. (Although even after they’re exonerated, Grandpa Moss will exemplify the ongoing doubt of the close-minded – “They‘re guilty all the same.”)
But still there is the beauty in this tender musical, from the lively second-act barn dance to the first-act ending anthem “The Promise of Living,” filled with those distinct Copland chord progressions, the broad, muscular strokes of orchestra and underlying the powerful singing. (As with “Appalachian Spring’s” borrowing of a Shaker song, Copland here takes from a 19th-century revivalist hymn.)
Kristine McIntyre has guided the young cast well and staged the movement wonderfully. Of particular note is the second-act party, brimming with life and activity. Special commendation to the chamber orchestra led by Suzanne Mallare Acton, and to other supporting cast, such as the dancers and Brian Leduc as the wonderfully named Mr. Splinters. On opening night Elliana Michaels played Laurie’s younger sister Beth with a delightful naturalness.
This is the third time Michigan Opera Theatre has produced this opera. The first, in 1978, was for the inaugural season of Midland’s Matrix Festival at which Copland himself appeared. (1978 was a big year for Michigan and one of the 20th century‘s most famous composers. That spring he also made a multi-day appearance at Oakland University, participating in seminars and conducting student ensembles.)
This time around it’s also a highlight of another innovative MOT project, the Michigan Opera Theatre Studio, giving us a glimpse of young talent who, like Laurie, are just starting their journey. We look forward to where that will take them.
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