Hopes ran high among music lovers that “An American Tragedy” might turn out to be the Great American Opera, or at least the first great one of the 21st century. All the elements seemed in place: a sure-fire, pre-tested plot; a prominent composer who had demonstrated his power and skill in previous stage works; a crack cast comprising the U.S.’ best singing actors; an acclaimed, adventurous director. The result was an evening that somehow failed to jell, largely due to a score that stopped short of fully involving its listeners.
Trimming Theodore Dreiser’s nearly 900-page 1925 novel down to the requirements of the operatic stage is a task admirably accomplished by Gene Scheer’s libretto. Scheer has wisely kept most of the action around 1906, the year in which the events that inspired Dreiser took place. The case, in which an ambitious young man fell in love with a wealthy girl, drowned his pregnant girlfriend and was executed for murder, became a bestseller in Dreiser’s hands. (It was turned into a successful play in 1926 as well as Hollywood films “An American Tragedy” (1931, helmed by Josef Von Sternberg) and George Stevens’ 1951 “A Place in the Sun.”)
By streamlining the central story and details, Scheer has constructed a tight libretto, though his lyrics rarely rise to intriguing poetic heights. Some uncomfortable anachronisms creep in (“Sondra, you still don’t get it!”) and, when intentional rhyming occurs, it is often only approximate (“known/chrome,” “surprised/eyes,” “toes/closed”).
Director Francesca Zambello and set designer Adrianne Lobel (latter making her Met debut) have taken a brilliantly effective approach. They stage most of the action very close to the aud on a three-tiered set that is broken up into varied spaces through the use of sliding panels and projections.
The fast, unifying flow of the opera’s 15 scenes is thus assured, as is the opportunity to depict two or more events occurring in different places and even at different times. This system also allows for a stunning coup de theatre in the drowning scene, when Roberta falls out of the boat on an upper tier and, moments later, is seen frantically struggling for her life in the murky waters below.
Creating the role of Roberta Alden, soprano Patricia Racette demonstrated theatrical instincts as true and finely honed as any great actress, in addition to her plangently lovely voice. Her Roberta was a touching, tragically vulnerable figure who emerged as the opera’s true star.
Nathan Gunn is a physically ideal Clyde Griffiths — and few male opera singers would look as good in a 1906 swimsuit — but his darkly handsome baritone is ill-suited to the character, whose youth and impetuousness demand the more callow sound of a tenor. He probably should have switched roles with William Burden, the fine, attractive tenor who played Clyde’s spoiled cousin, Gilbert.
Susan Graham was well cast as wealthy Sondra Finchley; her throbbing mezzo has recently gained in sensuality and allure. Veteran tenor Kim Begley was memorable as Clyde’s uncle Samuel, while star mezzo Jennifer Larmore unusually and successfully tackled a character role as Samuel’s shrewish wife, Elizabeth.
Dolora Zajick, nominally a mezzo but here mostly using her thunderous contralto range, gave a rock-solid, moving performance as Clyde’s missionary mother, who must watch her son go to the chair. Smaller roles were well filled by Anna Christy, Richard Bernstein, Mark Schowalter and boy soprano Graham Phillips.
But all these great efforts count for little if an opera’s musical component is not memorable. Despite the masterful hand of veteran conductor James Conlon, Picker’s score — though essentially accessible and tonal — never reaches out to its audience. Instead, it seems content to comment on the action, rising and falling continuously along with a vocal line that seems similarly aimless.
Moreover, there is little sense of early 20th-century period ambience in the score. A brief vaudeville ballet brings no whiff of the music hall; later, waltzing couples in Dunya Ramicova’s lush Gilded Age costumes are accompanied by Rogers & Astaire-style nightclub swing rhythms that could only have existed 30 years later.
There is worthy musical theater to be found in this story; perhaps Picker was simply the wrong composer for it. If only Stephen Sondheim had gotten there first.