It’s to the great credit of the 15-year-old Berkshire Opera Co. that it commissioned this new Edith Wharton opera (in partnership with Edith Wharton Restoration) and presented it with an experienced cast in a first-class production. There’s genuine beauty here, not least composer Stephen Paulus’ shimmering, Ravellian orchestration. But Paulus and his librettist Joan Vail Thorne have not entirely succeeded with their adaptation of Wharton’s 1917 novella “Summer.” On the eve of the 21st century, “Summer” sounds like an operatic throwback to the 19th.
Perhaps Paulus was seduced by images of hot, humid Berkshire summers, for he has composed too much languorously impressionistic music with too little forward propulsion. He and Thorne have damagingly underplayed the gritty toughness of Wharton’s tale of anything but lyrical Berkshire life in the 19th century. Their opera lacks backbone. It is, in a word, bland.
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Not one of her best-known works, Wharton’s “Summer” is receiving a lot of attention. Dennis Krausnick’s dramatic adaptation is currently being staged at Shakespeare & Co., and a musical version commissioned by the Goodspeed Opera House won the 1998Richard Rodgers Development Award and has been given staged readings by Manhattan’s York Theater Co.
But without the enveloping, revealing style of Wharton’s prose, “Summer” is no more than Victorian melodrama, a cliched tale of a poor young woman done wrong by a rich young man who leaves her pregnant to marry another.
The opera never suggests the “rural misery and harsh reality” of Wharton’s novel that Edith Wharton Restoration historian Scott Marshall writes about in the BOC’s playbill. There’s a brief, embarrassing scene devoted to a brutal, drunken mountain family (the kind heroine Charity Royall was born into), but, for the most part, the music, libretto and direction prefer to evoke period charm and Berkshire beauty.
Margaret Lattimore is miscast as the tough and difficult Charity. Though she has been raised by socially acceptable Lawyer Royall since she was 5, Charity is the daughter of drunken scum parents. She’s meant to be rebelling against her stiflingly, rigid surroundings, where almost everyone looks down on her.
But here she’s a perfectly groomed Grace Kelly blonde who looks more sophisticated and well-bred than anyone else. Lattimore sings beautifully, though she does sometimes allow her voice to sink below the level of the finely polished playing of ever-vigilant conductor Joel Revzen’s 32-piece Camerata New York Orchestra.
The BOC cast comprises singers who have worked with major opera companies including the Met, the New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera. Their experience shows. Though he rather overdoes the Victorian stiffness of Lawyer Royall, John Cheek almost walks off with the opera in the role of Charity’s guardian, who wishes to marry her despite her preference for the much younger Harney (clearly sung by Michael Chioldi). One of the strongest performances vocally is that of Joanna Johnston as a local grande dame.
“Summer” is a small-cast chamber opera without a chorus, but a chorus is missed in the July 4 parade and fireworks scene. The vocal writing is never less than graceful for the singing voice. Although the cast’s projection of the English-language libretto is reasonably good, the use of supertitles helps.
The opera sits well on the large stage of the Koussevitzky Arts Center. It’s been given an elegant set by David P. Gordon and brilliantly handled projections , often of gorgeous photographs of Berkshire houses and scenery, by Jan Hartley. Gordon’s spare, multi-level stage floor and sliding panels of wooden planking allow for seamless scene changes.
Overall, both score and libretto urgently need to be toughened up. Paulus is certainly capable of it: His Symphony in Three Movements (Soliloquy) proves it. And he’s no newcomer to opera; “Summer” is his seventh, with the best known being “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” If “Summer” is to enter the opera repertory, Paulus, Thorne and director Duncan need to do some revising — and lose their inhibitions.