By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK – In her latest opera, Proving Up, Missy Mazzoli again balances on the grim divide between life and death. Her two previous operas have offered solitary terror in the desert and a study of sex and death in a cramped Scottish town. Proving Up, the dark side of Little House on the Prairie, takes place on the bleak plains of Nebraska, where a post-Civil War family of homesteaders embodies the crumbling of the American Dream.
Mazzoli, whose Breaking the Waves received the inaugural Award for Best New Opera from the Music Critics Association of North America, is currently composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; she is also the first woman to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera.
Proving Up was co-commissioned by Washington National Opera, where it had its premiere last January; Opera Omaha, where it was presented in April, and Miller Theater in New York City, which changed some casting as well as production values of James Darrah for two performances last week.
The title comes from the goal for people settled on government land, who could earn the right to own by “proving up” to certain conditions – notably, in this opera, having a house with a window made of actual glass. Procuring such a window before the all-important government inspector arrived was a crucial effort; neighbor relationships were made and broken as the prized sole window was begged, borrowed, or stolen.
Royce Vavrek’s libretto, loosely (maybe too loosely) based on a short story by Karen Russell, depicts the miseries that overcome this doomed, well-meaning family. (Vavrek, also the librettist for Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves, is likewise Met-bound, with a commission to write the libretto for David T. Little’s forthcoming opera.) There is a drought – earth and weeds are powder-dry on the raised platform that stands for a field, which is also the burial ground of two daughters, with a house silhouetted behind it. This beleaguered family, with scars on their hands from the plow, is not making a go of it.
Pa (John Moore, hapless and surly) drinks, the bottle hanging from his hand. Ma (Talise Trevigne with a sweetly beautiful soprano voice) looks after their two sons: Peter (Sam Shapiro in a silent role) suffers from severe, unexplained injuries and sits in a washtub, and Miles (tenor Michael Slattery) is the simple good-natured hope of the family. (Hope? Don’t look for any hope for him.)
All of Mazzoli’s scores are original and interesting. But in contrast to others, this one was unwelcoming – rich in texture but without the luscious harmonic swells typical of her works for Victoire, her all-female instrumental quintet. Miller Theater finally has a working orchestra pit, where the capable International Contemporary Ensemble, insightfully conducted by Christopher Rountree, navigated extras, including seven hanging guitars sometimes played with a whisk.
Loud and dissonant, like forgettable passages of Barber or Ginastera, the music also contains lyrical moments evoking Britten, ersatz folk tunes, and eerie harmonica effects – in particular, on harmonicas played by the dead sisters. These omnipresent spooks (Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico), dressed in white with high-button white shoes, wild black hair, and red-rimmed eyes, not only sang well in ensembles, but cavorted about the stage, laughing maliciously when things went wrong for the family, which was often.
So if they’re supposed to be dead under mounds in front of the house, why are they running around doing stuff? It’s one of several holes in the libretto; another is the mysterious, murderous Sodbuster, sonorously sung – howled, moaned, falsettoed – by basso profundo Andrew Harris. Is he Death? A neighbor? A wayfaring stranger? Is that snuff he’s taking? Why do the sisters play harmonicas when he appears? And what makes Ma drag the rotting corpses from beneath the mounds and embrace them? Not much here for the squeamish.
Word settings and dialogue were sensitive, but titles, on either side of stage, required turning your head often. Fortunately, the diction was as good as the voices.
With awards and commissions, Mazzoli is proving up. Her planned Met work is to be based on George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, an experimental novel centering on Abraham Lincoln as he grieves for his deceased son, Willie. “Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the Buddhist “intermediate state” between death and reincarnation, when the soul is not connected to a body. How could she resist that theme?
The knowledgeable audience greeted the performance with enthusiasm. Curtain calls were the jolliest part.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.