Thursday 12/8: "An American Tragedy" at the Met

I don’t think I’d been t the Metropolitan Opera since the spring of 1978 until Thursday night, when I was privileged to attend the third performance of Tobias Picker’s new work, An American Tragedy. It’s based on the Theodore Dreiser novel of the same name.

I bought a mid-priced ticket of “only” $100, and wasn’t sure how good my seat would be. I had relied on the advice of the young man in the box office, and I’m glad I did. It was in the center, of the “Grand Tier,” the second tier of seats. A seat directly below it would have cost over $300 (or maybe $189; there were $300+ seats somewhere, I know). My seat had a full view of the stage, and the sound was great.

It was a theatrical experience like I’ve never had before. Francesca Zambello’s direction was excellent, and Adrianne Lobel’s three-tiered set was amazing. I’d forgotten the enormity, especially the height, of the Met stage. It was the most striking set I’ve ever seen, with sliding panels and mind-blowing visual images, and it was used to full advantage.

The music? Very accessible, usually engaging and entertaining, and occasionally reminiscent of a Bernard Hermann score for a Hitchcock film (except with many more meter changes, and, of course, singing). Very imaginative, and written (to my cellist’s ears) well for the voice. I could almost always understand the singers (and English is often the most difficult language for classical singers to make clear). I did use the “Met Titles,” which show the words on a little screen in front of one’s seat, both for the novelty and because in some ensembles the words did get jumbled up a bit. The music is through-composed for the most part, with the orchestra very busy and not a lot of tunefulness for the singers. Anthony Tomassini in his review in the Times seems to complain that there were too many “set pieces,” but to me they didn’t seem particularly artificial or the music out of contect. I wasn’t often grabbed by the music, but then again Picker’s work is new to me and perhaps after a few hearings it would begin to affect me more.

The story itself (based on actual events) is deeply powerful and disturbing. Clyde Griffiths grows up the shild of poor Salvation Army-type street missionaries. As a young man he meets, by happenstance, his wealthy uncle, from whom his father was estranged. The uncle gives him a job in his shirt factory, where he quickly rises to a management position. He becomes involved with a worker, Roberta, but they keep their relationship secret, supposedly because violates company policy, but more importantly to Clyde because it allows him to also become involved with Sondra, a socialite friend of his uncle’s family. Roberta becomes pregnant and is sent home by Clyde with promises that he will marry her soon, once he has saved money and his position is more secure. Yet at the same time he becomes deeply involved with and engaged to Sondra. When Roberta returns to confront him, he decides to murder her. On a boat in a lake, he lacks the heart to knock her out with an oar as he had planned, but she accidentally falls in the water and he watches her drown (as those of us with our “Law and Order” legal educations know, this constitutes “depraved indifference” and counts as felony murder). Eventually he is convicted (of actual murder) and sentenced to death. As he awaits execution, his mother visits, he finally confesses all to her, and she assures him of God’s forgiveness. (This somehow reminded me of the Virgin Mary welcoming poor Suor Angelica into heaven at the end of the Puccini opera. Well, not just somehow. It’s a very similar theme of Christian redemption offered by a holy mother-figure to someone who feels ashamed and unworthy.)

Not cheery, and also not the stuff of the usual operatic tragedy in which there is a noble love threatened and defeated by some intervening, evil force (Suor Angelica’s great love for the baby taken from her, for instance). Here the protagonist, Clyde, is a deceitful social climber who seems to have no real self, let alone a moral center. It’s a modern, story, yet Wagnerian in its paradoxes.

While I wasn’t overwhelmed by the music in general, the mother’s scenes with Clyde were genuinely moving. Indeed, what I found most moving about the entire opera was the portrayal of a mother’s unrelenting faith in the ultimate worth of her son, and of God’s love for him, even as she came to realize that he had indeed committed murder “in your heart.” Perhaps the power of those emotions inspired Picker’s best music.

There were two moments I thought were music/theatrical genius.

The first was made possible by the multi-tiered set. Roberta, on the lowest level of the stage, has been singing aloud a letter she is writing to Clyde as she sits in her room at her parents’ house. We then see, on the level above, Clyde and Sondra at the beach. As Roberta, still clinging to the dying hope that she and Clyde will marry, sings of how wonderful life will be once she and Clyde are husband and wife, Sondra sings the same exact words and music to Clyde as he rests his head in her lap. It was striking and chilling, and reinforced both the similarity of genuine feeling each woman felt for Clyde and how he was using them as interchangeable objects to fulfill his own needs.

And then at the end of the opera, as Clyde makes his final prayers, his child self appears and sings the hymn with which he (the child Clyde) opened the opera. That innocent child takes the hand of the condemned man as the adult Clyde finds spiritual redemption and walks to his death.

Dolora Zajick played Clyde’s mother, Elvira, and gave a beautiful, moving performance. She was deservedly cheered at the final bows. Patrica Racette as Roberta and Susan Graham as Sondra were excellent, as was Nathan Gunn (Clyde). These three young stars all looked perfect for the parts as well. I’m not an opera buff, and the last time I was at the Met I believe it was Beverly Sills, approaching retirement, playing Thais. She did not quite look the part. Things are quite different now. Both women were beautiful, and Gunn, handsome and fit, was perfect for the role of the handsome social climber.

James Conlon conducted with energy and passion. (I’ve played under him and like him; he’s a really nice guy, amazingly unpretentious for a major conductor.) When I took my seat and looked down at the orchestra gathering and warming up, I was happy to remember that I was going to hear another of the world’s great orchestras. Well, they didn’t sound so much like a great orchestra as a potentially great orchestra which plays a different show every night, playing a challenging new score which perhaps they weren’t all that much into. Things seemed a bit ragged from time to time. And pit orchestras being pit orchestras, even at the Met, instruments were being put into cases and folks heading out of the pit as soon as the applause began (my seat afforded a great view of all that, which I found amusing for it is such universal behavior). When Conlon came out on stage during the curtain calls, he started to walk towards the pit to acknowledge the orchestra. But he quickly noticed that there wasn’t anyone left to acknowledge, save a few stragglers, so he just smiled and bowed.

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