Libby Larsen's Opera Picnic Has Its World Premiere in Greensboro
by William Thomas Walker
April 2, 2009, Greensboro, NC: The World Premiere of the opera Picnic by Libby Larsen has been eagerly anticipated by music lovers throughout central North Carolina. The composer had been waiting for the right time to set William Inge's Pulitzer prize-winning play, Picnic, since she had discovered it and the MGM movie version during her teenage years. Major funding from Charles A. Babcock's Estate provided for commissioning a new American opera for the School of Opera Theatre at the University of North Carolina Greensboro in connection with the restoration of Aycock Auditorium. Opera director David Holley adapted an amazingly large amount of Inge's text into a libretto in which major arias or dramatic scenes are drawn naturally from the drama. Larsen's score makes extensive use of jazz along with improvised parts combined with skilled writing for a traditional pit orchestra. The strong cast was drawn from alumni and current students of UNCG Opera Theatre program.
The setting of Picnic is a small town in Kansas during the Eisenhower era, dominated by a strong emphasis on sexual and social conformity. The action takes place between two adjoining houses headed by women of straightened means and broken dreams. Anxious widow Flo Owens has high hopes for her two daughters; college for her awkward tomboy Millie, and a marriage into money for her gorgeous older daughter Madge. Flo rents a room to an old maid teacher, Rosemary Sydney, whose prospects are dwindling. Her neighbor, old maid Helen Potts, takes care of her invalid mother and is generous to needy strangers. She feeds Hal Carter, a shiftless drifter who hopes to get an easy job from his old fraternity roommate Alan Seymour who is Madge's boyfriend and a member of the town's upper crust. Colorful supporting characters are Rosemary's school teacher friends Irma Kronkite and Christine Schoenwalder, and Rosemary's eventual reluctant suitor, small businessman Howard Bevans. Over the course of a Labor Day, Hal upsets the conventional routine of the lives of all of these women along with Alan and Howard.
There was not a single weakness in the superb opening night cast of Picnic. Everyone's diction was excellent and all projected their voices strongly. Voices were covered only sporadically during loud playing by the jazz band elements of the pit orchestra. Two arias immediately stood out as possible fodder for vocal recitals. Madge's Act I aria, "Pretty, Tired" which expresses her resentment at being always seen as the "Pretty One" and her longing for something different like running off with a spy from Washington, D.C. It was sung brilliantly and movingly by lyric soprano Linda Lister. Baritone Charles Schneider brought out all the desperate emotion Hal feels for Madge in his Act III aria "You’re the Only Real Thing I've Ever Wanted." Schneider's solid voice had a nice, rich resonance.
Flo's Act I aria, "You Were the First Born" explains the different experiences of her two daughters; Madge was the apple of her father's eye while Millie was born while her father was pulling a drunk, and never knew him. It also reveals Flo's having had a disastrous marriage to a ne'er-do-well. The full pathos of Flo's life was realized with the solid vocalism and skilled phrasing of lyric mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis. Mezzo-soprano Candice Burrows brought a warm toned vocalism to the role of Flo's good-hearted neighbor Helen Potts.
Lyric coloratura soprano Tara Sperry turned in a bravura performance as Millie, the tomboy sister who metamorphoses into quite a butterfly for her first Labor Day picnic date. Her high notes were precise and prolific when she strafed her sister with an angry fusillade. Lyric tenor Daniel Stein sang with a lovely and mellow tone in the role of Madge's rich suitor Alan Seymour.
Lyric mezzo-soprano Ann Marie Wilcox brought an extraordinary mix of physical comedy and emotional despair to the role of the old maid schoolteacher Rosemary Sydney. Bass Donald Hartman did double duty. He was a cool cat delivering a riff on "Life Standing Still" in the jazz set before Act II. His rock-solid vocalism was paired with great acting skill as he brought Rosemary's old bachelor-lover Howard Bevins to life. His and Wilcox's Act III scene 1 duet brought a raw-nerved intensity to Rosemary's desperate begging for Howard to marry her. Wilcox was joined by mezzo-soprano Reneé Sokol Huff as Irma Kronkite and soprano Lindsey McConville as Christine Schoenwalder for the comic trio "Pot Roast of Veal," a hilarious recounting of the teachers' luncheon.
Composer Larsen's score skillfully blended and juxtaposed a conventional pit orchestra with a jazz band along with a jazz trio which opened each act uniquely. Act I was opened dramatically with sultry lyric mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis entering the hall via the left aisle, singing "Smile when you feel lonely" into a microphone while jazz trumpeter Edward Bach blew riffs as he walked down the right aisle. Lewis and Bach improvised brilliantly in the jazz set before Act III in which she sang about a man who "treated her like a dog" while Bach blew some low down and raunchy notes. They were joined by jazz faculty members John Salmon on piano, Steve Haines on double bass, and Thomas Taylor on drums. Larsen intends these sets to have improvised elements that change with every performance. Her scoring for traditional instruments, strings and woodwinds, was adept and effective and her use of the pit jazz band was pungent and witty. Conductor Ted Taylor kept close co-ordination between the members of the University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band in the pit, the singers on stage, and the jazz trio ensconced between the stage and the audience in the right corner.
Besides singing the role of Madge, Linda Lister acted as a choreographer by arranging the dance moves in Act II. The excellent unit set was designed by Randall J. McCullen and the shifting progress of day and night was skillfully arranged by Lighting Designer Claire Garrard. The costumes designed by Deborah Bell conveyed a fine sense of the early fifties period. This outstanding staging ought to join the growing list credited to director David Holley and the UNCG Opera Theatre. Larsen's newest opera is one of the most promising of the contemporary operas I have reviewed in their NC or Southern regional premieres.
Picnic repeats April 5. See our Triad Calendar for details.
An interview by CVNC critic William Thomas Walker with David Holley, UNCG Opera Theatre Director, can be found at http://cvnc.org/reviews/2009/032009/LarsenPrev.html.