Saturday, April 17, 2010

Aaron Copland: The Tender Land

A FRIEND WHO'S INVOLVED with opera called the other day, asking if I planned to go to Berkeley Opera that week. No, I said, I didn't, why? What were they doing?

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.

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.
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.

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.


Aaron Fryklund said...

Once I had the opportunity to see this opera produced in a way that was quite stimulating, and I wish others had the chance to see it like this. I saw it performed by a company who basically took the set and the music and utterly stripped it down. The stage was a normal concert hall stage that had been draped with a few white lengths of fabric that were allow some freedom to flow. And rather than have a pit orchestra, it was completely performed on piano by a man who was half-arranging-from-the-score-as-he-went, half improvising in that style. Seeing it reduced to its elements like that made far more of an impact to me than if I had seen it in full production. I would even like to see some other productions done in this way just to see what happens to them.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I saw the Friday night performance also, and agree 100% with hokey and pretentious. The libretto is just awful, not only for the line-by-line problems, but for its failure to make anything of the only real point of the tension, the suspicion that Top and Martin are the rapists who've been reported to be in the area. My comments are on my own blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight. I found your comments via Daniel Wolfe.

Curtis Faville said...

One thing about powerful aesthetic minds (or visions) is that they create a sort of wall, or pivot, against which, or around which, one deflects feelings and reactions, or around which one moves (plays, dodges, circles). (Mixing metaphors here.) Before they existed, we would probably have been surprised and gratified that such works could be made, but once there, we regard them with a mixture of suspicion, envy, contempt and boredom. Precisely because they're undeniable, vivid and persuasive in ways that run the spectrum from serious to naive. That's part of their wide appeal.

Copland was capable of expressing widely different kinds of applications of musical meaning. It's easy to puncture his nativist American theme works, but his "atonal" or "difficult" works are no less cliche'd and predictable. Listening to his Statements or Piano Variations carries, for me, the same kind of hackneyed quality one gets listening to Rodeo or Lincoln Portrait.

In retrospect, Copland strikes one less as a conflicted genius--who couldn't decide what kind of artist he was--than an ingenious adaptor with great facility. His lyrical sense was superior, even when it sounds corny. I remember thinking the Third Symphony was as ambitious as anything in Ives or Carter, even though it worked, typically, with "American" thematic material.

Shostakovich was never one whose music I felt close to. My close friend in my early college years, Michael Lamm, loved his symphonies, and we listened to all of them. Later, when I played a lot of music on the keyboard, I worked on his Preludes and Fugues, and they seemed often "dogged" and grim--though Philip Glass certainly seems since to have developed those qualities to an extreme!

I confess not to be a fan of Britten's. British music is a special case. Colin Wilson wrote a little book about classical music many years ago, which I read as an undergraduate. His big hero was Bax. And Vaughan Williams. Opera hasn't been an interest, either, which probably limits my apprehension of him completely.

Anonymous said...

I saw a production of The Tender Land years ago and it was absolutely the worst "musical/opera" I have ever sat through. This was definitely like seeing the Emperor's New Clothes. Folks who hailed it as great, were just trying to be Avant Guard. This Copland piece has absolutely no redeeming qualities and should never be performed in public again.