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A 'Mother' Lode of American Sounds

Opera Review * A little-known Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein work with Susan B. Anthony at its center gets a welcome revival.

April 03, 2000|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK — "The Mother of Us All" is, but for one problem, the ideal candidate for America's national opera. Written in 1945 and 1946 in the glow of World War II victory, it is about suffragette Susan B. Anthony, about battles won and hope for a just American future. It waves flags but not unrealistically.

It has, in fact, a subtly wistful tone; its words are Gertrude Stein's last--she died of cancer just as she completed the libretto. Her language is pure American dialect but artfully assembled. Virgil Thomson's music glows of the American heartland, hinting at the hymns, marches, waltzes, ballads and ditties that, even in an age of rap, feel quintessentially American and are also artfully assembled. The opera's deep emotions--about individual rights and opportunities and justice--are the ones Americans are the most comfortable with.

The problem is that "The Mother of Us All" is, for the vast majority of American opera-goers, completely foreign. It is not just a work they don't know but also a style. The New York City Opera's current production of "The Mother of Us All" is its first major American staging in nearly 25 years. The last was in Santa Fe in 1977; its subsequent recording (conducted more in the style of a British pastoral play by Raymond Leppard) is how most interested listeners experience it. (The earlier Thomson-Stein collaboration "Four Saints in Three Acts" is more famous but neglected as well.)

City Opera has set out to right a great operatic wrong. It has assembled for the work's large collection of American characters--Stein is generous with her history and throws in John Adams, Daniel Webster, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Lillian Russell, a few personal friends and invented folks along with herself and Thomson--a handsome cast of polished young American singers. It has treated the title role as a star vehicle for the company's current star, the soprano Lauren Flanigan. An American well-versed in modern music, the company's music director George Manahan, conducts. A strikingly theatrical American director, Christopher Alden, is entrusted with the production.

"The Mother of Us All" was commissioned by Columbia University for a small theater (and if the opera has been kept alive at all, it has been through subsequent student productions). Thomson had hoped it might run on Broadway, as had "Four Saints." The musical style is utterly direct, with the intent of absolute intelligibility--miss a single word and you have missed something. In a perfect analogy to the opera's theme of equality between the sexes, word and note are also meant to be exact equals.

Yet modern opera singers, trained to sing old opera in large modern opera houses, rarely give words the vote. At City Opera, they are used to compensating for dull acoustics in the New York State Theater, the company's Lincoln Center home. This year a controversial fix-it has been employed by installing electronic sound enhancement. This is not meant to be amplification such as is found on Broadway, but a form of acoustic modification to help bring a presence and clarity to voice projection throughout the uneven house.

For a listener hearing the system for the first time Saturday afternoon, there seemed to be a hint of artificiality to the voices, and there also seemed to be a bit more clarity. Nothing was radical. Some voices were still strong, some not. Some singers still enunciated better than others, but the balance was toward improvement. Nevertheless, old habits die hard among opera performers bred to overstate and inflate.

*

Thomson's libretto is not exactly collage, but it alludes to narrative more than it spells anything out. Susan B., as Anthony is called, is an extraordinary character. She has much of Stein in her--Stein at the end of her life trying to make sense of having just watched a world at war as an American Jew hiding in France, trying to make sense of why men act like men and women like women. "Men have kind hearts when they are not afraid but they are afraid, afraid, afraid," Susan B. explains, despairing of men ever "voting my laws."

At the end of the opera, Susan B., now a ghost observing her statue being unveiled, sings as moving an aria as ever written in American opera about her long life. She didn't win the vote for women during her life, but she knew that she had won the battle, and Thomson's luminous music is his greatest. It brings a tear to the eye, as much Stein's valedictory as Anthony's.

Flanigan is a powerful, heroic presence as Susan B. But she has a regal bearing and the conventional emotionality of a 19th century opera heroine--she is more the real Anthony than the Susan B. of Thomson's opera. Other characters push as well, although Jeffrey Lentz as Jo the Loiterer and Tara Venditti as Indiana Elliot, whom Susan B. marries while delivering an anti-marriage sermon, get the tone just right.

*

Alden's production is period with present-day attitude. It takes a few too many knowing winks, has more sex than is needed and errs on the side of explanation, but it also has a lively theatricality that proves consistently involving. Alden directs actors superbly, and everyone looked just as they should in Gabriel Berry's excellent costumes and on Allen Moyer's happy set of a large classroom. Conductor Manahan was one of the ones who sometimes pushed Thomson too hard, but short of disastrously so.

All in all, then, "The Mother of Us All" survives and thrives, and now more people know about it.

* "The Mother of Us All" runs through April 8. (212) 870-5570.

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