HOIBY Summer and Smoke

HOIBY Summer and Smoke ● Steven Osgood, cond; Anne Viemeister (Alma Winemiller); Nickoli Strommer (John Buchananet al.; Manhattan School of Music Opera Theatre ● ALBANY TROY1272/73 (2 CDs: 2:02)

Lee Hoiby died on March 28, 2011, shortly after celebrating his 85th birthday. He was one of the last of America’s “true” neo-romantic composers—certainly the last of his generation. What is sadly ironic (although there is so much about the lives of American composers that is “sadly ironic”…) is that after spending most of his career as an ultra-conservative “also-ran,” his admirers limited largely to singers (including Leontyne Price) who loved his art songs, and choristers who enjoyed his many choral anthems, he had, perhaps during his last five years, emerged as a more substantial creative figure than was previously acknowledged. Several fine recordings had recently appeared that were devoted entirely to his art songs, and a few of his 10 or so operas (depending on exactly how one defines “opera”), had finally made it to disc. Furthermore, productions of his operas were appearing with rapidly increasing frequency—and were received with considerable praise. His operatic adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country has enjoyed multiple productions, as has his treatment of Shakespeare’s The Tempest(1986), as well as successful recordings (see my 2009 Want List). His last opera, Romeo and Juliet, still awaits its premiere, which, one hopes, will not be long in coming. However, my own favorite—perhaps among all his works—is his adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s 1948 play Summer and Smoke, completed in 1970, with a libretto by Lanford Wilson, who—another irony—died four days before Hoiby.
This new recording is taken from a production by the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theatre in December, 2010, which I was fortunate enough to attend. The rich literature of the American South has provided the source material for a number of fine American operas, and their themes often involve repressed sexuality. Summer and Smoke is no exception, in its juxtaposition of idealized, spiritual love, epitomized by Alma, the minister’s daughter, against unabashed carnal lust, embodied by her next-door neighbor John, the young doctor whom she has adored (relatively) secretly since their childhoods. As with other operas based on strong literary works, the spectator is drawn into and captivated by the drama; and when the drama is projected through music that captures the work’s emotional themes, the ecstatic thrill of true music-drama is achieved. This is one of those relatively rare instances. For his musical adaptation, Hoiby built his opera around several motifs whose chromatic twists within a harmonic framework that is unabashedly and fundamentally tonal unerringly evoke the torrid, achingly repressed yearning that is the emotional core of the work. And, as is so often true of operas structured in this way, greater familiarity enables the interweaving of these motifs within a dense texture to become increasingly clear and transparent, revealing an emotional foundation that is unified, utterly convincing, and deeply moving enough to bring one to tears. Annotator Jane Jaffe aptly describes the music as “a Puccini-esque flow of dialogue and lyrical phrases that often expand into arias.” I would add only that the “Puccini-esque flow” often betrays a Mahlerian poignancy. This molten brew is interrupted (or relieved, depending on one’s personal feeling) only by mundane diegetic intrusions of mariachi music and a marching band.
The performance is very good, on the whole. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that this is a definitive rendition of the opera. It is, after all, a school production: The orchestra is a little scrappy at times, soprano Anna Viemeister is hampered by an irritatingly wide vibrato during more taxing passages, while baritone Nickoli Strommer’s intonation can be a little uncertain, and his affected Southern accent is rather obvious. But these are not fatal shortcomings. I consider this an important new release (one of only two entries on my 2011 Want List). Among American neo-romantic operas, it is one of the best; for listeners sympathetic to the genre it is essential listening.