OWEN: Rain

OWENRain • Richard Owen, Jr., cond; Lynn Owen (Sadie Thompson); Marc Embree (Reverend Davidson); Catherine Kelly (Mrs. Davidson); David Gordon (Dr. McPhail); Adina Aaron (Mrs. McPhail); Camerata New York • ALBANY TROY-623/24 (2 CDs: 1:46)

The idea of using well-known stories as operatic subjects is as old as opera itself, although most recently it sometimes seems as if topical subjects have been appropriated solely to provide box-office draw, the music itself serving as a necessary afterthought. But some popular fiction does seem ideally suited for operatic treatment, and one such example is W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain. One of Maugham’s best-known stories, Rain, written in 1920, was adapted as a play soon thereafter, and then transformed into feature films on three separate occasions (Sadie Thompson [1928] with Gloria Swanson, Rain [1932] with Joan Crawford, and Miss Sadie Thompson [1953] with Rita Hayworth). For those unfamiliar with it, the story concerns a prostitute and a rabid missionary who is driven to save her soul, but finally succumbs to his own animal passions. Though written by an Englishman, the notion of a self-righteous moralist whose persecution of “sinners” is but a psychological denial and projection of his own sinfulness highlights an archetype that has persistently defiled and sullied the American character with hypocrisy, from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 right up through the moment that I write this. (The line sung toward then end of Rain’s Act I, commenting on Rev. Davidson’s fervor, “There’s something wrong with a man who always thinks he’s right,” might well be applied to those making today’s headlines.) The archetype has not been ignored by American opera either—consider Robert Ward’s The Crucible and Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, the first two that come to mind—not that its dramatic power has been exhausted. But Richard Owen’s 1999 opera may be the most recent such effort.

Owen, now in his early 80s, has written eight operas, including their librettos, all of which follow a neo-romantic stylistic orientation, while lacking the distinctive melodic gift of his teacher, Vittorio Giannini. Having greater or lesser familiarity with four of his works, I would say that they are all sincere efforts, partially successful as compelling, expressive music-dramas. As such they are prone to damnation by faint praise. Furthermore, the fact that most of his operas have been tailored to the talents of his wife, veteran soprano Lynn Owen, though perhaps an advantage earlier on, has become in recent years something of a liability, truth to tell. To top off the mixed-blessing issue, the revelation that Owen did not undertake his quest to compose operas until the age of 30, and then pursued it concurrently with a career as a trial lawyer, and later, as a federal judge, though warranting both admiration and respect, has also—perhaps unfairly—tarnished the composer’s reputation with the taint of dilettantism.

Like Owen’s other operas with which I am familiar, Rain fails to make a consistently strong musical statement, though it has moments that come close. Its basic language—tonal but highly chromatic, featuring a throbbing arioso that ebbs and flows with the emotions of the dialogue—requires passages of strong melodic focus to highlight the work’s dramatic structure, but these fail to materialize. Throughout the first of its two acts the music tries in vain to take flight, like an attempt to launch a kite when there is no breeze. However Act II is much stronger musically, as the Reverend’s efforts begin to touch Sadie’s heart, and the opera begins to touch our own.

But there are other liabilities that weaken this representation of the work. The recording is miked very closely, which—though enabling nearly every word to be heard—magnifies every vocal deficiency and every infelicitous turn of phrase in the libretto, not to mention every rough edge in the playing of the scrawny 14-piece chamber ensemble that provides the accompaniment, under the direction of the composer’s son—and there are plenty of rough edges. The performances of both Ms. Owen as Sadie and Marc Embree, the bass baritone who plays Rev. Davidson, suffer from a harsh stridency exacerbated by wide, hooty vibratos, while the instrumental ensemble sounds under-rehearsed, to say the least. All in all, the work could be much better served by a more polished performance and recording, but even then, I am afraid it is no Susannah.