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American Tragedy - Tobias Picker
No performances scheduled
Gourmet American Cheese Plate from
The Metropolitan Opera commissioned and premiered an ambitious new
opera, An American Tragedy, by composer Tobias
Picker with a libretto by Gene Scheer. The two act opera is based on Theodore Dreisers best-selling novel
that deals with the sordid side of the American dream. How does a young man overcome his
poverty and achieve financial success and social standing? Drawn from a true story, the
protagonist fares badly he causes the death of his pregnant girlfriend when she
gets in the way of his success. Because the 1925 novel runs to nearly a thousand pages,
the opera libretto is considerably pared down, as one would expect. Despite the able
direction of Francesca Zambello who has selected the best possible cast, the music and the
text fail to produce characters that are sympathetic or a message that informs
todays situation in the world.
The story of the opera establishes the anti-hero Clyde Griffiths as a
young boy (played by the boy soprano Graham Phillips) growing up in a family of street
missionaries. Act I quickly moves to Clyde as a young man (baritone Nathan Gunn) working
first in a seedy hotel and then progressing to management in his uncle Samuels
(tenor Kim Begley) factory. There he is told by Samuels high-roller son, Gilbert (tenor William Burden), to keep his hands off the
ladies. By the end of act I, Roberta (soprano Patricia Racette), one of the factory
workers, is pregnant and demands that Clyde marry her while Clyde has already moved on to
his cousin Bellas friend Sondra Finchely (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) who is a
sophisticated society debutante.
Neither the selected story details nor the music of Picker and
Scheers collaboration create a sympathetic emotional base for Clyde. Unlike
Dreisers novel, the shame that the boy Clyde feels when his mother (mezzo-soprano
Dolora Zajick) has him sing in the streets is lost. What the Met audience hears is the
un-nuanced angelic voice of Graham Phillips singing, Tis so sweet to trust in
Jesus. Although the opening music is brooding, the tonal music with dissonant
shading and the text do not suggest that the boy is uncomfortable with the ways and means
of his family.
In his first job as a bellhop, Clyde tries on a hotel guests
cashmere coat and later abandons the girl he has been pursuing as soon as he
convinces his uncle to hire him. Once on the job in his uncles factory, Clydes
ambition grows as he watches his cousin Gilbert drive a shiny new car. Nathan Gunn as Clyde
delivers a fetching song, saying: My future is as bright as polished chrome.
Materialism is Clydes mantra.
Act I offers a number of memorable arias and duets including
Sondras declaration that New York has changed her. Susan Grahams performance
is both vocally energetic and entertaining. Clydes seduction of Roberta is portrayed
with lyrically beautiful music. And the seduction scene plays against Sondra
Finchelys drawing room girl talk scene with Bella (soprano Jennifer Aylmer). This is
the emotional high point of the opera both in text and music.
Lobel's design presents a two-tiered stage as one might see a dolls house. Thus
while Clyde seduces Roberta on the ground floor, Sondra and Bella interact on a floor
above. The audience sees and understands that the two pairs of players are in separate
houses. Besides Lobel, director Francesca Zambello has chosen impressive supporting
partners, including choreographer Doug Varone. Varones choreography features William
Burden as Gilbert dancing drunkenly at his sister Bellas birthday party. The music
is jazzy and the scene plays like a Broadway musical.
Act I ends with Roberta saying she is past her time and
that Clyde must marry her now. The music is melodramatic as Roberta tries to find the
right way to tell Clyde about her situation. Clydes answer is What about
me? Despite all the details from Dreisers story that have been left out and
the notably interesting opera scenes, Act I drags. Act II opens with Roberta writing
letters from her parents home to Clyde while Clyde is romancing Sondra. Roberta is
running out of time and she wants Clyde to make good on his promise to marry her. Picker
creates another split scene between Roberta and Sondra and this time Clyde is with Sondra.
Both sing, "I feel like I've been waiting, my whole life waiting, to be desired by
someone like you." The music is seductively beautiful and, in theory, the audience
should feel sympathy for both Roberta and Sondra. However, the text fails to express how
these two women each feel about Clyde
Visually the most striking scene of the opera occurs in Act II Scene 3
with Clyde and Roberta in a canoe. The full-sized canoe is in a large window on the second
level of the tiered set. When the anguished Clyde accidentally knocks Roberta out of the
boat, another window opens on the lower level of the set and Roberta is seen flailing
under water. This scene is prefaced by Clyde plotting Robertas death by becoming
someone else who will disappear with her tomorrow. Did Clyde mean to kill her?
It is not clear, but because he does nothing to rescue her, she drowns and she drowns with
a great deal of melodramatic screaming.
Because letters to him are found in her pockets, he is arrested, tried
and sentenced to die in the electric chair. His mother tries to save him, but he
eventually confesses to her that he did nothing to rescue Roberta. The last scene brings
back a reprise of the song Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus and sees him walking
hand in hand with his boyhood self as he approaches the electric chair. Except for an
overly long full-cast church scene used to allow Roberta to confront Clyde while he has
been enjoying the company of Sondra and her well-to-do community, Act II moves at a
reasonably good pace.
Although issues of materialism, morality, and faith are timeless, what
Picker and Scheers audience will glean from their interpretation of this early 20th
Century novel is questionable. Are women and the church the source of all problems that
men experience? Does confessing and trusting in Jesus exonerate a man from his moral
failings? Has Clyde been victimized by his quest for the American dream? Now its
time to go back and read Dreisers novel and see the Academy Award-winning film by George
Stevens A Place in the Sun.
New York, December 5, 2005
- Karren L. Alenier