The Tender Land, he said.
Why on earth, I asked. He didn't respond immediately, but it was clear something was up. It isn't going to be reviewed, he said, And I thought maybe you'd like to go, and write something about it.
I don't do that any more, I pointed out. I'm retired. I don't write criticism.
But you blog, he said, You write about things you see, people read what you write. I just thought you might like to see this.
To make a long story short, what with one thing and another, against my better judgement, I said Okay, we have to be in Berkeley on Friday anyway, why not. I'm not fond of Copland's music of that period — his earliest music is his best, in my opinion — and I'm certainly not fond of his sense of theater. But I usually make it a point to see an opera I haven't seen before.
Then too, I have a kind of history with Berkeley Opera: I've narrated productions of theirs — in Beethoven's Leonore in 1997; in E.T.A. Hoffman's Undine (a much more interesting assignement) in 1999. I hadn't seen anything of theirs in years, and they'd moved into a new hall: it seemed like time to give it a try. So yesterday we stopped off in El Cerrito to see The Tender Land.
El Cerrito High School has a new complex of buildings, one of them rather an attractive auditorium, seating perhaps a thousand or so in a wide, no-central-aisle fan-shaped house, with a good orchestra pit and a good-sized stage. This is the new home of Berkeley Opera, which has been making do with the Julia Morgan Center for many years. (Before, it had played Berkeley's Hillside Club on Cedar Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where I remember seeing a fine Leonore in the 1980s.)
I'm not going to review the production: first, as I've said, I don't do that any more; second, it's been done by Musical America online, where Georgia Rowe writes production and performance notes I mainly agree with (except that I thought tenor Lee Steward perfectly acceptable in his higher range). (You can read Miss Rowe's review on the Berkeley Opera site.)
I thought the production — stage direction, sets, lighting and video projections, costumes — was perfectly appropriate to the piece, the theater, and the company. And the performances — both on stage and in the pit — were more than adequate, often nearly persuading me of the musical (though not the dramatic or literary) value of the work.
But The Tender Land seems to me hardly worth all this attention. In fact the opera seems bankrupt and bogus, an urban New York symbol-ridden view of a kitschy Steinbeck-flavored middle-American farm society; patronizing in its "tenderness" and boring both for its predictability and its emptiness.
The libretto is laughable, with lines like "Stomp your feet upon the floor" in a barn-dance scene. Much of the time it seems influenced by Gertrude Stein's writing for children:
Ma (Act I): Two little bits of metal, my needle and my thimble, a woman has to sew her family’s clothes against the cold cold weather. Two larger bits of metal, my woodstove and my kettle, a woman has to stew her family’s food against the cold cold weather.Often the English is so stilted it sounds like a poor translation from another language: My own sweet child, my own sweet child, her face is like my mirror long ago.
Martin (Act II): I’m getting tired of travelin through. My shoes are wearing thin. I’m getting tired of wand’rin, wand’rin, not caring where I’ve been. I want to stay in a place for a while and see a seedling grow. I want to come to know special skies, special rain and snow.
Then there's Copland's music, mostly in his open, consonant, bare-octaves-and-fifths manner of the 1940s, of Appalachian Spring and after. Berkeley Opera used thirteen instrumentalists: double string quartet, contrabass, flute-piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, piano. The result was transparent, hard-edged, mostly well in tune; but Copland's music, especially in the first act, is so unvarying, has so little rhythmic interest, that it's fatiguing to the ear. (I suspect that the tension between his open harmonies and the equal temperament the piano insists on is greatly responsible for this fatigue, but that's a technical matter.)
I've always thought of Copland, Britten, and Shostakovich as an interesting triad. Each was immensely gifted and intelligent; caught in an uneasy relationship to the prevailing Modernism-Reactionism duality of the early 20th century; apparently self-assigned to a position of National Spokesman for his art. Each composed masterpieces, particularly early masterpieces, then went on to an uneven output often troubled by indecision as to whether to be Popular or Principled (with respect to personal musical style).
Some of Copland's best scores are "abstract": the Sextet, the Piano Variations, the Clarinet Concerto. More are populist and narrative or at least pictorial: El Salon Mexico is my favorite, but of course Appalachian Spring and Billy the Kid are major works. Too often, to my taste, he goes way over the top toward courting a wider audience: A Lincoln Portrait, Fanfare for the Common Man.
This opera, commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for a television production (but ultimately rejected by NBC's Television Opera Workshop), seems to have been written with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in mind. That piece, produced ten years earlier in 1943, is brilliant and original; The Tender Land is hokey and pretentious. I'm glad I've seen it, but it's now crossed off the list.