From recordings, I’ve known and loved Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land for over thirty years, but I had never seen a production of it until last night at Bard’s Summerscape Festival. It’s true the piece is a little more stage-awkward than I’d imagined: some of the lyrics are more pictorial than dramatic, and the first love scene between Laurie and Martin takes place at an otherwise racuous party, which must be imagined silently continuing in the background. (Staging also failed to clarify Top’s peculiar second-act story, which scandalizes Laurie’s mother, and which must have some underlying denotation I can’t discern – please explain for me if you “get” it.)
Nevertheless, the piece is far tauter and more cogent than Blitzstein’s Regina, and I find myself more than ever baffled by its continuing negative reputation. The score is gorgeous, deftly woven together in a web of both background and foreground motives, and the emotional emphases are in all the right places. As a mere love story it would be unconvincing, but Laurie’s line when she leaves home to look for Martin – “I don’t leave for that alone, maybe I don’t leave for that at all” (which soprano Anne Jennifer Nash unfortunately rushed through in an otherwise stirring performance) – elevates it to a more potent American archetype, the young person stifled by a narrow upbringing. It’s a lovely yet fearlessly unsentimental picture of Depression-era rural America – a lyrical one full of stock characters, though, not realist as this production tried to make it. After seeing it at last, The Tender Land remains probably my second favorite conventional opera ever (leaving aside Robert Ashley for a moment), after The Mother of Us All. And yet the musical intelligentsia came out shaking their heads and clucking their tongues about how poor Copland “couldn’t write an opera.” More evidence, if more were needed, that I hear things upside-down from the rest of the world.