PICKER: Emmeline

PICKER Emmeline – George Manahan, cond; Patricia Racette (Emmeline Mosher), Curt Peterson (Matthew Gurney), Anne-Marie Owens (Aunt Hannah Watkins), et al; Santa Fe Opera O – ALBANY TROY 284-85 (2 CDs; 113:07)

Born and educated in New York City, Tobias Picker, now in his mid-40s, is one of those composers who abandoned the academic formalistic style in which he was trained, to seek a more accessible, communicative musical language. Over the ensuing years he has become one of the more prominent composers of his generation, with three symphonies to his credit, six concertos, and a variety of other works, many of which have been championed by household-name soloists. His first opera, Emmeline, was commissioned to commemorate the fortieth anniversary season of the Santa Fe Opera in 1996. The work seems to have been very well received, and has enjoyed considerable exposure. The Santa Fe production was telecast nationally the following year as part of the PBS “Great Performances” series, and has subsequently been released on compact disc by Albany Records. The opera was produced last season in New York, and Picker is now working on a commission for the Metropolitan Opera, scheduled for 2002.

Emmeline’s libretto was written by J. D. McClatchy, after a novel by Judith Rossner, which tells the purportedly true story of a Maine woman of the early 1800s who unwittingly married the son she had borne at the age of 14. When the truth was revealed, the son deserted her. Ostracized by the community, she spent the remainder of her life alone and in poverty. Picker described his reaction to this rather shocking story as “love at first sight.” Actually, I would not have expected audiences to be able to tolerate such a subject, but I must be getting old. I suppose that as we approach the millennium, there is not much that an audience would admit to finding really disturbing, but mother-son incest is certainly a good candidate, up there with necrophilia and coprophagia.

Anyway, Picker has couched the opera largely in the American verismo style employed successfully by composers like Menotti, Floyd, Hoiby, Pasatieri, and many others, although it also contains some minimalist-like ostinato effects and a few shrill atonal passages as well. I myself am very fond of the American verismo genre, having gained enormous pleasure from many such works — the pleasure of true musico-dramatic synthesis, which I often fail to draw from the standard opera favorites. However, the genre has been much maligned by truly mean-spirited commentators from both ends of the spectrum — proponents of the new and different, who dismiss these works as warmed-over Puccini et al., and defenders of the tried and true, who are content with what they already know and love, and resist the prospect of a new discovery. A small number of these works — e.g., Menotti’s The Medium and Floyd’s Susannah–have broken through this considerable resistance and become “hits,” at least within a circumscribed subsection of the opera-going public. (After all, even Susannah had to wait forty years for its first commercial recording.) But so many other equally memorable, captivating, moving works remain to be discovered and enjoyed by operagoers who seek no more or less than the thrill of gripping human dramas, enriched and enhanced by an expressively congruent musical dimension. Among those that come to mind are Barber’s Vanessa, Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke, Pasatieri’s Black Widow and Washington Square, and Flagello’s Beyond the Horizon.

Considered within this context, Emmeline strikes me as a fairly impressive initial effort, with much to recommend it. Like many works of this kind, the libretto itself has sufficient dramatic thrust to hold the spectator’s interest and move the opera forward. The music is generally effective in heightening the intensity of the drama, but there is little that is truly compelling or memorable on its own, as there is in the operas noted in the paragraph above — and that is probably Emmeline’s greatest weakness. In some of the central portions of Act I the music becomes at times a little grating without contributing much in the way of enhancement. However, there are moments — in fact, much of Act II — in which the music is quite sincerely moving, but not through self-contained arias or set-pieces that develop melodic ideas to major climaxes, but more as affectively intensified speech. Nevertheless, Emmeline has been extremely fortunate in winning the generous support of a number of benefactors, who have enabled it to gain widespread exposure and make a significant impact — the sort of send-off every opera composer dreams of. Its success is gratifying and I hope that it fosters further investment in works of this kind.

Some audience and stage sounds indicate the provenance of this recording in an actual performance, but these do not intrude on or detract from the experience. The singers are fine, the orchestra is adequate, and the quality of the recording is good, allowing virtually every word to come through loud and clear. This recent release is recommended to all listeners interested in American opera. I sincerely regret that my own schedule of responsibilities prevented me from completing this review in a more timely fashion.