ANTHEIL: The Brothers.
Rebecca Nelson (Mary, soprano); Ray Wade, Jr. (Abe, tenor); William Dazeley (Ken, baritone); E. Mark Murphy (Jim, tenor); Piotr Prochera (Ran, baritone); Bochumer Symphoniker/Steven Sloane.
CPO 777 545-2 TT: 54:12.

Fitfully interesting. Aaron Copland once famously dubbed opera "la forme fatale." After William Walton had finished Troilus and Cressida, savaged at its premiere, he swore he'd never write another opera (a promise, thankfully, he went back on). His verdict: "Too many notes." Opera represents a huge commitment (never mind Rossini) on the part of a composer's time, a company's resources, and so on. In the United States especially, there is almost no reason for a composer to write for a professional production without a guarantee of performance, and few companies -- considering the specialist audience, most of which would prefer to hear favorites rather than take a chance on something new -- would offer one.

Nevertheless, the United States during and after World War II saw a rise in native operatic works. Even Broadway got into the act with productions of Carmen Jones, Kurt Weill's Street Scene, Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story, and Loesser's Most Happy Fella. Menotti ran up a string of successes. Copland offered The Tender Land. Barber wrote perhaps the most successful opera (at least the one which enjoyed the most prestigious run), Vanessa. One could also mention Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe and Ward's Crucible as at least work that has hung grimly onto their spots in the repertory. In the Sixties, however, it all crashed. Perhaps Barber's greatest work, Antony and Cleopatra, suffered a high-profile flop. I don't believe it was all a matter of these works getting what they deserved. Many wonderful scores -- Kurka's Good Soldier Schweik comes to mind -- sank almost without a trace. The American audience simply lost interest. The "action" in opera returned exclusively to Europe.

Before then, Antheil had written two operas, 1928's Transatlantic and the 1930 Helen Retires (not to mention a hybrid opera ballet, now lost). Then he cooled his jets until he entered the postwar opera sweepstakes with no fewer than four: Volpone (1953), The Brothers (1954), The Wish (1954), and Venus in Africa (1957). Almost all received decent reviews, and none have come close to general acceptance. CPO's liner notes claim that the Bochum production is the first since the premiere run.

I wish I could say this opera succeeds, but despite a couple of moments, it never rises to anything much. It retells the story of Cain (Ken) and Abel (Abe). Remember that Steinbeck's East of Eden had come out the year before. Antheil furnished his own libretto. It's okay, although it ain't Auden, exactly. Part of this may stem from the fact that it's a one-acter. Antheil aspires to portray complex psychology. We question the sanity of at least two of the characters (and the intelligence of a third), but no character gets enough time to flesh out. Antheil presents us with the operatic equivalent of a climactic soap episode. I could recite the plot, but there's little point, given that we're talking about stick figures here.

The production falls short dramatically, if not musically. Much of the plot hinges on the similarity between the two brothers -- ambiguous identity -- especially on their voices. Wade, a tenor, and Dazeley, a baritone, sound nothing alike, even with Dazeley in his upper range. On stage, it would convince even less, since Wade is African-American and Dazeley isn't. The singers are mostly okay. I liked Rebecca Nelson best -- the most straightforward musically and dramatically. She doesn't chew consonants or mangle diphthongs. She actually knows how to sing in her native language.

S.G.S. (June 2011)