According to Vivian Perlis, writing in Grove Music Online, Aaron Copland's second opera, The Tender Land, "was commissioned by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II through the League of Composers for the society's 30th anniversary." Writing under the nom du plume Horace Everett, the composer's lover, Erik Johns, prepared the libretto of the three-act opera after James Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Copland intended its naturalistic language for use in opera workshops for college students. The scoring is largely diatonic in the style of his popular ballets, spiced with the occasional dissonance for dramatic effect. Steeped in Copland's Americana, the work was the ideal selection for UNC Greensboro's Opera Theatre and its inventive director, David Holley. During the March 30 opening performance in Aycock Auditorium, the enthusiastic student musicians of the UNCG Symphony Orchestra were under the firm baton of Robert Gutter. Holley chose the full three-act (1955) version with full orchestra, not the 1987 revival version by Murry Sidlin scored for thirteen instruments.
Music lovers familiar with Old American Songs will recognize favorite tunes in new orchestral guises. The big theme, first heard played just by the first-stand violas in the opening and culminating in the great quintet that ends Act I, "The Promise of Living," is the same tune as the folksong "Zion's Walls." "Ching-a-Ring Chaw" is used for the square dance number in Act II. According to Copland, the most "direct arrangement of a folk tune in the opera is 'I Was Goin' Acourtin','' sung by Top" in Act II.
The plot is set in the American mid-west in the mid-1930's during harvest time and centers around a farm family consisting of Ma Moss (contralto), her daughter Laurie (soprano), her ten-year-old sister Beth (spoken), and the very patriarchal Grandpa Moss (bass). Laurie is facing the transition to adulthood, about to graduate from high school, and yearning for change and travel. Drifters Martin (tenor) and Top (baritone) seek odd jobs. The elder Mosses are reluctant to hire them because of uneasiness about strangers and since Ma is suspicious because of "reports of two men molesting young girls" in the neighborhood. The pair is falsely accused of being the molesters. Over the course of Laurie's graduation party, she and Martin fall in love and plan to elope. Top convinces Martin that the vagabond life is unfit for a young girl. They steal away. Laurie leaves home on her own anyway, repeating the family legacy of her mother. The parallel between the life choices of the mother and daughter was important to the composer. To a critic who grew up near the poverty-stricken "hollars" (hollows) of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this intractable cycle of poverty is all too familiar and true.
The planned massive renovation of Aycock Auditorium will go far to remedy some of the acoustical shortcomings of the hall. A true recessed orchestra pit is sorely needed. Gutter did wonders in reining in the dynamics of the orchestra and especially the brass, which skirted being too loud from time to time. The strings and woodwinds were better balanced most of the time. Balance briefly skewed too loud early in Act III; except for several of the strongest singers, it took an effort consistently to follow the words of the average cast member. Except for a snafu taking them off line for the last 15+ minutes of the opera, the supertitles were excellent and handy, too, when balances favored the instruments. It was a brilliant stroke for Gutter to reprise the dominant orchestral theme music, "The Promise of Living," during the curtain calls. Jonathan Blalock did a first-rate job of preparing the chorus, and most of the singers doubled superbly as dancers in Marsha Paludan's choreography for the Act II party.
The single set was designed by Will Lowry. A weathered farmhouse at stage right and a smaller shed to the left were dominated by a slowly-spinning wind mill. Kasendra Bell's skilled lighting and some clever forced perspective managed to suggest the gently rolling plains extending into the horizon. This provided a more realistic performing space than was used for the premiere or any of the better-known revivals that have been reported.
All the cast's major singers, the numerous character players, and the chorus delivered Copland's words with admirable diction. Words sung generally project better than words spoken. In the speaking role of the ten-year-old Beth, Lauren Sims faced the dual challenge of projecting her voice into the hall over a full orchestra while portraying someone at least half her age. During the opening of Act I, her voice was hard to hear, but by Act II and especially in Act III, she had warmed up enough to put across her character's emotional range fully.
CVNC chronicled Julie Celona-VanGorden's triumph in last season's UNCG production of Lakmé. The firm-voiced soprano fully conveyed the emotional growth of Laurie from uncertain longing to her self-confident final choice. Copland gives Laurie a lot of speaking and singing time, in both solos and ensembles. Stamina is certainly an essential, and Celona-VanGorden met all the requirements.
Possessing a solid lower range, mezzo-soprano Sandra Cotton made a touching Ma Moss, torn between her love for her daughter and of her father. James Antoine McClure's rich bass voice and imposing stage presence made him an impressive Grandpa Moss. Tender affection for a granddaughter could flash to fury when his will was crossed. Baritone Neal Stratford Sharpe brought the right mixture of ambiguity to the role of Top, a self-described womanizer who nonetheless talks his buddy out of an ill-conceived elopement. His voice had a warm resonance. Firm high notes helped tenor Daniel Ross Hinson bring out the heartbreak of the drifter Martin, longing for a home and wife but ultimately unable to settle down.
Among the important character roles four were outstanding: Jonathan Blalock as the Postman Mr. Splinters, Amber Norris as his wife Mrs. Splinters, David Blalock as Mr. Jenks, and Gwendolyn Degentesh as his wife.
Note: A recording of the 1955 three-act version of The Tender Land conducted by Philip Brunelle is available on Virgin 59253. Recollections of the gestation and early performances of the opera are in Copland Since 1943 (with Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis), a collection of oral histories by the composer and his important colleagues.