W. SCHUMAN: The Mighty Casey (excerpts). BARBER: A Hand of Bridge. BLITZSTEIN: The Harpies. Rosalind Rees, Catherine Aks, sopranos; Fay Kittelson, contralto; Thomas Bogdan, William Carney, tenor; Richard Muenz, baritone; other soloists; Gregg Smith conducting the Gregg Smith Singers, the Long Island Symphonic Choral Association, and the Adirondack Chamber Orchestra. PREMIER PRCD-1009 [ADD]; 63:31. Produced by Robert W. Stern.
In 1953, William Schuman (with librettist Jeremy Gury) created an opera called The Mighty Casey, based on Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat, a piece of humorous verse that has been part of American popular culture since it first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888. For one reason or another, however, the opera, which expanded the poem with additional characters, a romantic dimension, some delightful music, and many entertaining embellishments, never generated much interest. Nearly 25 years later, Schuman adapted it for concert presentation, reducing the number of characters and the staging requirements. (The music itself differs little between the two versions.) Not only has Casey at the Bat (as the cantata version is called) caught on much more quickly, but it has also stimulated productions of the original operatic version.
The notion of a “baseball opera” may call to mind the ridiculous prospect of overweight and/or effeminate singers — mostly European — dressed in baseball garb, solemnly declaiming incongruously atonal vocal lines (how else to explain the decades of neglect?). However, such a characterization couldn’t be further from the truth, as Casey partakes not at all of such pomposity and incongruity — to the point where the term “opera” raises the questions of genre prompted by works like Porgy and Bess or West Side Story. In truth, its chief claim to being an “opera” lies in its brilliant, thoroughly integrated construction. Aside from that, it owes little to the tone or style of European opera. For Schuman, whose music reveals an inner spirit that is probably more deeply “American” than that of any other American composer who does not borrow from vernacular idioms, here displays a marvelously appealing “popular” side that is likely to surprise listeners familiar with the rest of his output, yet is authentically and recognizably his own. Most notable is a virile, aggressive, and nervously syncopated treatment of rhythm rooted in American speech patterns and totally appropriate to the subject matter. The tone of mock heroism, suspense, and tragedy that gives life to the poem (read in bits and pieces throughout the work) is retained and developed in Schuman and Gury’s expansion. Indeed, the finale displays a truly tragic eloquence reminiscent of some of Schuman’s finest moments. There are a couple of pretty melodies — “Kiss Me Not Goodbye,” in particular, is a real beauty. For the rest of it, catchy tunes, exciting rhythms, consonant harmony, and a robust, vigorous flow of energy keep the music direct and appealing, despite some chromaticism and free atonality.
This recording, which offers a little less than half the entire work, provides some substantial and representative chunks, although it would be nice to have the whole thing one day. I would not be surprised if Casey proves to be one of Schuman’s most enduring compositions, once it becomes more widely known. The performance of the excerpts is generally good, although some of the soloists sound a little strained and the chorus is not always as rhythmically precise as the score requires.
Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge is a 9-minute chamber opera, composed in 1959, with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, who also supplied the libretto for the composer’s nearly contemporaneous Vanessa. A bridge game provides the backdrop for a series of four interrelated soliloquies, as each character expresses (through asides) matters of personal importance they cannot share with each other. As a critique of the vacuous relationships and repressive conformity characteristic of bourgeois American life during the 1950s, the piece calls to mind Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. Of course, Barber’s trifle, composed in his most Stravinskian manner, is nowhere near as elaborate as Bernstein’s 45-minute opera. Nevertheless, it is clever and witty, with moments of true poignancy. The singing is fine, as is the instrumental playing.
The Harpies is Marc Blitzstein’s third opera, and dates from 1931, when he was still in his mid-twenties. In general, Blitzstein’s work is more interesting for its historical and sociological significance than for its musical content, and this work, for which the composer wrote his own libretto, is no exception. It is a modern adaptation of material from Greek mythology, treated in the style of Stravinskian neoclassicism (that man certainly did wield an influence), with some jazz-like touches. The music displays no melodic distinction whatsoever, and is performed in a dry, uninvolved manner. Without the presence of texts (none are provided with this release), it is difficult to discern whether this approach might be intentional (or what the work is all about in any case), but the piece is quite uninvolving as a listening experience.
This new release can be safely recommended for the Schuman and the Barber. The quality of the recording is quite good throughout.