With several of his orchestral scores now staples in performances and recordings, Aaron Copland was particularly successful among composers who sought to develop an identifiable but accessible "American" style of music, drawing freely on folk and traditional tunes. Despite the popularity of some of his songs, Copland was never as comfortable with the human voice (solo or choral) as with instruments. He was slow to venture into opera. His initial effort, The First Hurricane (1937), is a simplistic show for students. His only full-length opera, The Tender Land (1954), came late in his "American" stylistic period. Written for television, it was developed in alternative versions, none of which have found a firm place on the national operatic scene.
The Tender Land is an understated, even tentative affair. Copland was no master of stage writing, while his librettist lacked experience with it. Their opera portrays a teenage girl's restlessness in her constricted rural life and her decision, after a betrayed attraction to a rootless farmhand, to cut ties of farm and family for a plunge into the wider world. The plot has parallels to a play (then movie) by William Inge, Picnic, of exactly the same vintage (1953). The opera deals more simply with stereotyped rural characters, set in a postcard world evoking Grant Wood's folksy back-to-the-heartland paintings.
Despite monologues for each of the main characters, and at least one hymn-based chorus, the vocal writing is mainly simple parlando, while the orchestra flows on genially underneath. Few moments linger in the memory, but the overall effect, if unchallenging, is certainly pleasing.
Madison Opera's general director, Allan Naplan, and conductor John DeMain deserve praise for bringing this rarity to a public that has responded enthusiastically. The performance was indeed a very fine one, with excellent singers.
To the role of Laurie, the restless teenager, Kathryn Skemp brought a girlishly high-soprano tone and a perfectly apt bearing. As her mother, Julia Faulkner sang sumptuously, if with sometimes blurred diction. The ringing-voiced tenor Joel Burcham played the conflicted drifter who abandons Laurie, while the fine baritone Todd Boyce was his buddy Top, and veteran baritone Tony Dillon was convincing as the overprotective Grandpa.
Though the 13-instrument chamber reduction lacked the full-orchestra version's sonority, it nicely fit the production's scale, which used the cramped space of Overture Center's Promenade Hall with tremendous imagination as to set, direction and dance movements, in subtly lovely lighting.