The Eternal Triangle, Dreiser Style
By Michael Dellaira, New Music Connoisseur, Summer/Fall 2006, Vol. 14, #1
New Music Connoisseur's website: www.newmusicon.org
Tobias Picker: An American Tragedy, opera in 2 acts on a libretto by Gene Scheer (after the novel by Theodore Dreiser). With Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn, Susan Graham, Richard Bernstein, and Dolora Zajick. James Conlon/Met Opera Orch. The Metropolitan Opera, December 2-28, 2005.
In the first scene of the second and final act of An American Tragedy, the young, handsome, social-climbing Clyde Griffiths says to the stylish and decidedly rich young lady with whom he's now smitten, "Look at the lake, Sondra, it's beautiful, just like you." To those who have read Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel or are familiar with the upstate New York murder trial on which it's based, Clyde's words are the macabre foreshadowing of what will soon come: his afternoon on Big Moose Lake with Roberta, the pretty but unstylish and decidedly working-class girl he's not only wooed for most of Act I, but, more important, that he's made pregnant. She's now in the way, so Clyde has planned an outing for just the two of them on the lake, where he intends to knock her overboard with an oar. At the critical moment, he can't bring himself to do it; but when she slips, he refuses to help her, and she drowns anyway, just as he'd wanted.
Foreshadowings are numerous in Tobias Picker's (and librettist Gene Scheer's) splendid adaptation of Dreiser's novel, as are flashbacks so thoughtfully and elegantly wrought that these two temporal devices collapse into each other. Sounds and words become markers of events already past or not-yet-happened. "I mostly liked the magic, how he made the woman disappear," Roberta sings to Clyde after leaving the theater, both of them entirely innocent to the fact that Clyde will soon be making her disappear. The opera's opening measures articulate a figure on a B-flat minor 9th chord, an identifiable sonority strategically repeated throughout the work. But as we near the end of the opera, when Clyde's mother Elvira comes to visit him in his prison cell and sings a gorgeous, show-stopping aria (the first full working-out of the opening B-flat minor tonality), we then realize that what we've been hearing as flashbacks throughout the work have in fact been foreshadowings of this heart-wrenching moments.
But Picker's choices can also be deceptively simple and direct, connection action to motivation in a straight line, like his underscoring the district attorney's arguments to the jury with the music of Roberta's drowning; or he might signal approaching tension with a fortissimo or a flourish in the percussion. It is difficult to make passages like these work and few composers can do so without making them sound tired and obvious: Picker is one of them. Indeed, Picker's finely tuned dramatic sense gives him the confidence to create an unobtrusive and unpretentious score replete with the kind of operatic moments that have thrilled audiences for the past four hundred years and that have ensured many works a long and continuing life on the opera stage.
The score contains several arias that will become staples (if they haven't already) at auditions and recitals: Clyde's "car aria" is one example; it affords insight into Clyde's materialistic ambitions but can also be heard as an entertaining number about some men's fascination with fast, shiny vehicles. And Sondra's "New York" aria gives us a clear sense of her social position and her wealth, especially when compared to the lowly Roberta; but it also expresses the pure excitement and thrill that New York offers to so many, rich or poor. The second act duet between Sondra and Roberta ("I feel like I've been waiting"), when each separately fantasizes about Clyde's role in their life, is simply stunning in its beauty and simplicity.
A love triangle resolved by a boat-drowning is reminiscent of Picker's last opera, Thérèse Raquin, and the pitiable pregnant factory girl is of his first opera, Emmeline. It's almost as it the composer couldn't resist the fact that in An American Tragedy, these elements reappear. And as wonderful and successful as those two earlier works are, their convergence here results in an even more inspired work: in my opinion, the best new opera I've seen and heard in a very long time.
Nathan Gunn was a convincing Clyde, spirited, conceited, and buff. A bit shaky in the dress rehearsal, his baritone sounded just splendid a week later. Richard Bernstein had a commanding presence as the D.A., his bass-baritone downright intimidating. Patricia Racette was appropriately gullible and pathetic as the doomed Roberta, her diction clear, even in her upper register, and it's a pleasure to hear her act and sing at the same time. On physical attributes alone I wouldn't have thought Susan Graham as Sondra would be Clyde Griffiths' cup of tea, but as soon as she started to sing her velvety mezzo made her as irresistible as Elizabeth Taylor (who played the same character in George Stevens's 1951 movie version, A Place in the Sun). Dolora Zajick's Elvira brought the house down at both performances I saw.
The Met orchestra sounded better than ever, thanks to James Conlon's conducting as much as Picker's fine orchestration, and Francesca Zambello's direction showed once more why she is in such demand at opera houses the world over. An American Tragedy is on the Met's calendar for the 2007-2008 season for those who want to see it again or missed it the first time around.