HOIBY A Month in the Country

HOIBY A Month in the Country • Steven Osgood (cond); JennyRebecca Winans (Natalia Petrovna); Charles Temkey (Rakitin); Liam Bonner (Belaev); Yooson Park (Vera); Alex Boyer (Arkady); Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater • ALBANY TROY-747/748 (2 CDs: 120:52)

In the informative and entertaining essay that accompanies this set, Mark Shulgasser outlines the fascinating history of Ivan Turgenev’s most famous play. He recounts how A Month in the Country has been revised so many times over the years—even during Turgenev’s lifetime—by so many different hands, that there exists no definitive version of the work. Thus, persuaded by director William Ball, who based his libretto loosely on the already-much-altered play, Lee Hoiby took on the challenge of making an opera of it, working on it throughout the early 1960s. Under the title Natalia Petrovna, the opera was presented in 1964 by the New York City Opera. The opera underwent major revisions for a 1981 production at the New England Conservatory, at which time the title was changed back to its original name. (Ball subsequently contracted AIDS and committed suicide in 1992.)

The story unsurprisingly shares much in common with the plays of Chekhov, which have always struck me as depictions of the foolish vanities of shallow people, for whom it is difficult to develop an empathic connection. Thus an opera like Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull, also produced by the Manhattan School Opera Theater and released by Albany (TROY-579/80; see Fanfare archive or my Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com), becomes a natural point for comparison. But, perhaps less obviously, so does Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, based on Gian Carlo Menotti’s original libretto that, though set “in a northern country,” shares much in common with the Chekhov style. Not only are the dramatic components of such operas less than compelling, but the music itself, conceived to approximate the style and tone of the libretto, can easily become diffuse and tiresome as it delineates the endless trivialities. Although many others, including the composer, disagree, I feel that this makes The Seagull one of Pasatieri’s least satisfying full-length operas. Barber, on the other hand, was somewhat more successful by simply writing great music ill-suited to the nonsense spouted by his foolish characters. Hoiby’s effort is closer to Pasatieri’s, in actually attempting to capture the tone and spirit of the characters and the play. What this means is that there is less autonomously rewarding music to enjoy away from the theater. I might point out that I was in attendance at one of the performances from which this recording was made, and I can affirm that the experience was an unqualified delight, taken on its own relatively light-hearted terms, and enhanced by excellent acting and a generally witty production. I’m sorry to report, however, that purely as a listening experience, the recording is less successful. This is not to suggest that there aren’t some lovely musical moments in the opera, e.g. Natalia’s magnificent Act II aria, and the haunting octet at the end, no less moving for its unavoidable comparison with the ensemble that ends Vanessa. (In fact there are those who might be tempted to characterize A Month in the Country as “Vanessa-Lite;” indeed, it maintains a much lighter touch throughout than Barber’s melodrama.) It is just that these autonomous musical moments comprise a relatively small proportion of the entirety, which contains an awful lot of silly chatter. 

Lee Hoiby is one of America’s finest living opera composers, and many of the current generation who have ventured into this arena could learn a great deal from him-—Summer and Smoke is a masterpiece, and a first production of his most recent effort, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, is eagerly awaited. But A Month in the Countrymust be regarded chiefly as a diversion. Nevertheless, I would recommend it-—and the recording-—to those listeners who enjoy both Vanessa and The Seagull. And Albany Records is to be commended for its significant commitment to documenting the repertoire of American opera. 

Overall, the performance is excellent, though unfortunately the contribution of JennyRebecca Winans (as Natalia) is marred by an abrasively wobbly vibrato. The others, however, are fine in their more modest roles.