Music Web International reviews Eric Sawyer: Our American Cousin

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Music Web International
Mark Sebastian Jordan
March 1, 2009

Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln comes this ambitious opera from American composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw. This is courtesy of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an exciting program of releases focusing on modern American music.

Sawyer's Our American Cousin takes its name and part of its plot from an American comedy of the 1850's by that name. It was being performed by Laura Keene's traveling players at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. the night Lincoln attended and was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Sawyer's opera does not set the original play. Rather, the opera toys with the conventions of a play-within-a-play structure, by portraying the actors putting on this play and some of the audience members, including Lincoln and his wife, and Booth. Interestingly, though, the emphasis is not on the delusional Booth but on the split between the "real" world and the "artificial" world of theatre. But, as Shakespeare famously said, "All the world’s a stage," thus blurring the boundaries and giving the work some nice opportunities for surrealistic touches.

For instance, within this context, it is easy to stop the action and let a character go into an internal monologue. Lincoln does this at one point in the middle of the "performance" on stage. Also, this allows for the spectral reappearance of Lincoln at the end of the work, after the assassination, in an aria where the musical instruments gradually fall away, leaving the confused, bemused shade singing alone, unconsoled by any music but his own thoughts.

Earlier parts of the opera veer back and forth between backstage conversations, and the play being performed. The thorough notes included with this release explain that the play presented here is based on the original play, but is heavily rewritten to relieve its hopelessly dated style. It remains a corny piece, about an American bumpkin returning to Europe to claim an inheritance. Backstage lurks Booth, who is not performing in the comedy that evening, though as a well-known actor, he has run of the theatre.

What this work portrays is not what Booth is doing, but instead how the players are caught up in what Booth does. Janna Baty sings Laura Keene, the director of the company and female lead of the comedy. It is she who invites the President to the show, and opens it with an address to the audience inviting them to forget the world that evening and enjoy the comedy. After the shooting, she cradles the President’s head in her lap, leaving her covered with his blood at the end of the opera, when she is left alone on stage to witness his spirit. Baty sings compellingly, shaping the different layers of stage character, professional performer, and grieving, guilt-ridden witness. Her foil in the comedy is the American bumpkin Asa, who is played by an actor named Henry Hawk. Hawk is sung by Alan Schneider. He covers a wide range between the guffaws of the backwoods rube of the comedy and his real life, backstage. There he reels with the news that the substitute he paid to fight for him in the Civil War has been killed in battle. Schneider does particularly well pulling off the difficult feat of portraying a twangy hick in full operatic voice. Sometimes he can't avoid sounding a little too polished, but within the context of the role, it works.

What is a little more awkward is the portrayal of Lincoln, surely a thankless task, as we all have our own preconceptions about how he may have sounded. The traditionally pompous portrayal of Lincoln in American movies and television commercials gives him a grand bass voice and neutral speech pattern. The historical record tells quite a different story, describing Lincoln’s oratorical voice as high tenor, nasal, and strongly accented of the frontier. In an attempt to avoid both preconceptions, Sawyer opts to cast the president as a baritone. But the libretto, nodding to history, allows for some of Lincoln’s Midwest twang. Unfortunately, this leaves singer Donald Wilkinson with the task of playing a deeply serious character in an opera with a backwoods accent. Wilkinson does what he can, but seems stuck halfway between dramatically committing to a full-blown character and honoring the accurate technical polish of standard operatic style. The character remains elusive.

More dramatically successful are Janice Edwards as Lady Mountchessington, the play's greedy dowager. Edwards, not saddled with playing an onstage and offstage level - as she's only seen in the play performance sections - jumps full force into characterizing her role, as does Hillarie O'Toole, playing her daughter Gussy. Angela Hines Gooch has a tart voice, but it is perfect for Mary Todd Lincoln, alternately doting on her husband and being distracted by her own mania.

One of my favorite parts of the work is toward the end of Act One. In Scene 4, various audience members arrive — nurses, amputees, businessmen, freedmen, women — and sing a capella as each group takes its seats. Though beautiful, it seems a bit stilted and artificial at first, though staging might help that. It works musically when the choral groups return to join in the free-for-all at the end of Scene 5. This starts out as a backstage rehearsal of a drinking song and ends up cartwheeling out of control, only to be cut off by Ms. Keene herself. It's a glorious mish-mash of Americana, and I wish it had lasted longer.

Outstanding arias include Hawk's Walking a Corduroy Road, voicing the character's nightmare about searching for the body of his draft substitute on the battlefield. Lincoln's aria is gorgeously sung by Wilkinson, even if dramatically it remains enigmatic. Tom O'Toole's delightfully sinister Booth makes one wish that Booth had been more of the focus here, even if that would make for a more predictable piece. Baty's shell-shocked rendition of Laura Keene's final aria Blood Stains is chilling.

Shoptaw's libretto is colorful and poetic throughout, even if occasionally a touch wayward. It offers a lot of charm and shifts from serious to farcical and back with grace. Sawyer's music is at its best where it wears its learning lightly, as in the audience choral numbers, the drinking song scene, or in some of the longer arias, where there is room for Sawyer's extended tonality to expand and explore. Sawyer's teachers include Leon Kirchner, Tison Street and Andrew Imbrie, and, boy, does it show. There is rather too much self-consciously learned technique here for my taste, and not enough naked response to what is happening. Sawyer's extended tonality bogs down dialogue and crowd scenes where the action needs to take on a life of its own.

Perhaps part of the problem also stems from this recording being made after a concert presentation of the opera, but before its premiere staging in 2008. It lacks the frisson of "finding its legs" on stage, leaving it sounding studio-bound and tentative in places, particularly where individual singers and choral singers sound too correct, too coached, and not truly dramatic. Gil Rose guides it all with a firm hand, and the Boston Modern Orchestra does a fine job giving us our first glimpse of an intriguing piece.

Lest anything above be taken too harshly, remember that a work this ambitious can have some flaws but still be absolutely worthwhile, and Our American Cousin is. Everyone involved is to be commended for daring to take on something this grand, something with this much meaning, this much bittersweet food for thought.

— Mark Sebastian Jordan

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