THOMAS Desire Under the Elms · George Manahan, cond; Jerry Hadley (Eben); Victoria Livengood (Abbie); James Morris (Cabot); London SO · NAXOS 8.669001-02 (2CDs; 2:06)
In a short essay included in the program notes of this recent release in Naxos’s “American Opera Classics” series, commentator Patrick J. Smith remarks to the effect that Eugene O’Neill’s plays are like operas without music, so it’s no surprise that several of his plays have been adapted into operas. Indeed, the first statement is so true that I find it surprising that all his 40+ plays haven’t become operas. In fact, the weaknesses that have left many of them relatively dormant would be irrelevant in operatic treatment. In Desire Under the Elms, however, we confront one of the great playwright’s powerful masterpieces. To describe it as a gruesome tale of intra-familial hatred and greed, quasi-incestuous lust, and infanticide doesn’t fully capture the extent of the depravity encompassed within its three acts, nor the consistent intensity of its emotional pitch.
Truly it is a play that begs for operatic treatment. But such a task requires a composer who is able to enter an expressive realm of heightened realism in which the powerful emotional forces of the unconscious are revealed, and to unleash them with music of commensurate eloquence and force—someone on the order of Richard Strauss, for example. To fall short of this requirement is to run the risk of producing a result that is merely ludicrous and hysterical.
Edward Thomas, now in his late 70s, appears to have enjoyed a long and successful career as a composer chiefly in the worlds of commercial music and musical theater, although he studied with Tibor Serly and has written a number of works in a more “serious” vein. His operatic adaptation of Desire Under the Elms, created in collaboration with librettist Joe Masteroff, seems to have been a labor of love begun during the early 1970s and tinkered with over the course of the next two decades. It was staged by a small New York opera company in 1989. Thomas calls it a “folk opera,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Its style—a simple, straightforward vein of Neo-Romanticism, with occasional touches of Americana—is most comparable perhaps to Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, but I wouldn’t call that a “folk opera” (although Patrick Smith does).
However, Susannah is a masterpiece of its kind, and Thomas’s Desire is not. But that doesn’t mean that it is without merit. The mood is aptly set by a menacing, appropriately Straussian opening, which, however, soon fades into a more banal vein. Nevertheless, by the end of the first act, as the drama begins to gain momentum, the music settles into an expressive declamation that frequently launches into heightened melodic flight, while only occasionally relaxing into more folk-like moments of respite. These melodic flights do have their memorable moments, making it relatively easy to grasp and appreciate the work on a first hearing, an accomplishment that is facilitated by a recording that allows the libretto to be readily audible. By the second hearing, the work already feels familiar. The opera’s major shortcoming, however, is the character of the music: It simply lacks the distinction, the elevated stature necessary to meet the subject matter on its own level, with the result that the impact of the work is sordid and melodramatic, rather than grand and tragic.
The performance is less than ideal as well: the tenor of Jerry Hadley, as the son who falls helplessly in love with his step-mother, sounds terribly strained, a far cry from the instrument that made his reputation, while mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood, as the step-mother, exhibits some of the same sense of strain, sounding frayed around the edges. Basso James Morris as the hard-hearted old father fills his role adequately, and the orchestra plays well under the direction of George Manahan.