Classical Music Review: New Releases

Virgil Thomson & Gertrude Stein - The Mother of Us All.  San Francisco Opera; San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Donald Runnicles, conductor. War Memorial Opera House; 21 September 2003.

What becomes a legend most? Well, in the case of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's The Mother Of Us All (1946-47), a big, iconic figure like Susan B. Anthony (1820 -1906), who through struggle and strife, got women the right to vote. The pair's first opera, Four Saints In Three Acts (1927 -1934), focussed, if one can use that word to describe something so artfully fractured, on St. Teresa of Avila, whom Stein surrounded with major saints like Ignatius, and many lesser ones. Its first production as the opening act at Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum auditorium was a success de scandale. Maverick museum director Chick Austin's bet paid off -- everyone who was anyone was there, and the opera's subsequent Broadway run made headlines, too. This premiere production had fanciful costumes and decor by New York painter Florine Stettheimer, which made theatrical history. But The Mother of Us All is a horse of a different color. It was first performed at Columbia University in the year it was finished with a production nowhere near as sumptuous as that accorded Four Saints. But how could it be? Its subject, after all, was 19th century politics, not the Spanish Baroque, and being less spectacular both visually and musically it has languished in its shadow. But that doesn't alter the fact that it's a totally unique work from a totally unique team. And though it has an almost straightforward narrative line, it's really just as elusive and allusive as its more renowned predecessor.

The San Francisco Opera production, which opened Director Pamela Rosenberg's 2003-2004 season, is a retooling of the one director Christopher Alden did at Glimmerglass, in Cooperstown, New York, in 1998, and at NYCO in 2000. The composer's publisher Schirmer reports that Mother has had about a dozen different mountings since 1991, including ones at Trinity College, London (1996), and at Thomson advocate James Bolle's Monadnock Music Festival in Petersborough, New Hampshire, the same year. The SFO one departs somewhat from Stein's libretto, which Thomson's painter friend and lover Maurice Grosser made into a stageworthy scenario, just as he'd done with Four Saints. Alden and his set designer Allen Moyer -- lights were by Mark McCullough, costumes by Gabriel Berry -- made changes in the first scene -- prologue. The script says -- "A room in the house of Susan B. Anthony ... Susan B and Anne are seated beside a table..." But what we saw was what appeared to be the inside of a tilted brocade box with these two characters sitting in front of it on opposite sides of the stage -- Susan B (soprano Luana De Vol) attending to her correspondence stage left, while Anne (mezzo Stephanie Novacek) knits stage right. Yet Alden's decision was a sound one -- the two figures looked trapped in a kind of repressed Victorian darkness -- Susan B was in fact roundly hated -- and the brocade pattern heightened this sense of constricting convention. The next scene -- " a political meeting in a tent ' -- went even further by substituting a classroom for it in which the characters wrote their names on blackboards -- an arch, yet informative touch. But the dramatic sense of the scene was redeemed by having Daniel Webster (bass- baritone Jeffrey Wells) wheeled in on an outsized lectern from which he intoned his odd yet powerful ostinato tune  -- " He digged a pit, he digged it deep..." as other characters like Chris the Loiterer (baritone Troy Cook, who was in the Glimmerglass production), and Angel Moore (soprano Anna Christy) went about their unrelated business. Alden's mounting emphasized the non or anti-realistic aspects of Stein's text, and its larger than life characters like Susan B and Webster were made even more so by McCullough's lighting scheme which had their shadows loom imposingly, though other scenes were muted, and evocative in an entirely different way. Alden's direction and McCullough's lighting chimed perfectly in Act II, scene 1, where Susan B sits primly yet determinedly in an egg-shaped spot center stage, and facing the audience sings -- " I never say never again, never again,... I always hope that if I go that if I go and go and go, perhaps then you men will vote my laws ..." Susan B's mission as well as her isolation and despair were powerfully projected.

Stein identified with her heroine as a driven and largely misunderstood woman who fought for what she believed in and desperately wanted to be understood on her own terms, and this is the dramatic and expressive intent of Thomson' s exquisite and utterly transparent aria for her -- " We cannot retrace our steps ... " which she sings in the very last scene as she's being unveiled as a statue in the Halls of Congress. Though Alden's staging was effective enough -- he had Susan B atop a brilliantly white pedestal -- it was hardly as dramatic or mysterious as David Parr's direction of this moment in San Francisco City College's City Summer Opera production in July 1988, for which I wrote the program notes. Parr's solution was far more moving -- he had the cast members wheel the statue in, and then uncrate it stage right, as Susan B (Lorene Sapin) emerges, and sings her way into history, and myth.

The Mother Of Us All is all about this country's remembered image of itself, and Thomson's score provokes those memories through its canny thefts and deeply poetic juxtapositions. But a huge American flag draped over the lectern at one point -- and in these very troubled times -- gave me pause. Stein and Thomson were, I think, after something subtler; their piece, after all, is character and music driven, not jingoistic, and this gesture amounted to a dumbing down. Sure, they were American artists through and through, but ultra sophisticated ones too -- the composer even described himself  as "sassy and classy". These twin virtues certainly came across when Alden had the composer (tenor Beau Palmer) and Gertrude Stein (mezzo Judith Christin) pop out of windows to comment on the action beneathemth, and Alden and Berry scored a coup de theatre by dressing the two as they were in life -- Palmer the spitting image of Thomson, with his balding pate, jacket, bow tie, slacks and loafers, and Christin a pint-sized Stein, in her ubiquitous brocade vest, skirt and sandals. Everyone in this production sang well, though special mention should of course be made of De Vol's magisterial performance, as well as that of Wells, and soprano Dana Beth Miller did a wonderful comic turn done up in red, white and blue plumes, as the actress Lillian Russell. Thomson's music is very exposed, and its emotional temperatures change with lightning speed. Conductor Donald Runnicles and his pit band projected these with accuracy, passion, and poetic feeling. And the sounds they made -- none of the parts were doubled -- came across clearly in the 3000 plus seat house, which is far cry from Brander Matthews 280 seater, where Mother took its first bow. And my friend and I -- we were were seated orchestra left -- had no problem understanding the words, which was ever Thomson' goal.

Michael McDonagh
Photo: Luana DeVol (Susan B. Anthony) and Stephanie Novacek (Anne)

Photo by Larry Merkle

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