FLOYD: Of Mice and Men
Gordon Hawkins (George Milton); Anthony Dean Griffey (Lennie Small); Joseph Evans (Curley); Julian Patrick (Candy); Elizabeth Futral (Curley's Wife); James Maddalena (Slim); Tyler Smith (Carlson); Scott Scully (Ballad Singer); Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Orch/Patrick Summers, cond.
ALBANY TROY 621/22 (2 CDs) (F) (DDD) TT: 74:54 & 37:37
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For most operagoers, the name Carlisle Floyd has meant Susannah ever since its New York City Opera premiere in 1956, which won the NewYork Music Critics Circle Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. For all 12 of his operas, four of them in a single act, he wrote his own librettos beginning with Slow Dusk in 1949 through Cold Sassy Tree in 2000, his swan-song jointly commissioned by five US opera companies. After Susannah, however, there were several not- quite-successes, two of which – Wuthering Heights (1958) and The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1962) – he rewrote in sum or in part (a virtual new version of Wade). Then lightning struck a second time in 1970 with Of Mice and Men, introduced in Seattle with palpable success and a staying power second only to Susannah, which by then had crossed the Atlantic, despite Virgil Thomson’s just verdict in American Composers that, “for all its orchestral ineptitude...an opera of repertory status.”

By 1970 Floyd had conquered orchestral ineptitude without disturbing the uncommon clarity of his textual settings, although Of Mice and Men is a Depression-era period piece based on John Steinbeck’s novel. A 1939 film version was successful, but the crisis of migrant workers and rural poverty was still a national problem. By 1970 these had dimmed, and in any case had been more movingly exemplified in another Steinbeck novel, The Grapes of Wrath – a 1940 John Ford film of which is enshrined in the pantheon. Of Mice and Men features George and Lennie, the latter a childlike giant of man at the core, surrounded by farmhands; the only woman is the flirty, implicitly slutty wife of Curley the foreman. Lennie accidently strangles her when she teases him to play with her hair, and George must shoot Lennie lest the law deal even more harshly with him.

Floyd’s vernacular libretto is compact, his musical characterizations honest. Of Mice and Men has a trajectory through three acts without becoming maudlin, although George and Lennie’s dream of their own farm can become sentimental rather than poignant. The recording from Houston, where General Director David Gockley persuaded Floyd to relocate as co-director in 1976, is a first-rate example of canny casting in all seven male roles. Only Elizabeth Futral as Curley’s wife (no other name) has a shrillness that makes her sound shrewish under stress rather than sex- hungry.

Otherwise, Gordon Hawkins is suitably gruff-sounding as George at the same time he is gently protective of Lennie, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus are a superbly integrated ensemble under Patrick Summers’ direction, as befits their long association with Floyd’s work for them – Bilby’s Doll, Willie Stark (from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men), the revision of Jonathan Wade, and finally Cold Sassy Tree. By no means least, recorded sound is altogether natural in the best sense – presumably a studio production rather than a live performance. As produced and packaged, it is another jewel in Troy Albany’s crown.

R.D. (March 2004)