THOMAS:  Desire Under the Elms
Jerry Hadley (Eben); James Morris (Cabot); Mel Ulrich (Simeon); Jeffrey Lentz (Peter); Victoria Livengood (Abbie); Darth Meadows (Sheriff); London Symphony Orch/George Manahan, cond.
NAXOS 8.669001/2 (2 CDs) (DDD) TT:  125:50
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This is unfair, but, you know, when I looked at the cover of this 2-CD set and saw the words "American Opera Classics," I immediately responded, "Yeah, right." If we take the term "classic" to mean a great work which has held the stage for a number of decades, then among American operas only Porgy and Bess qualifies. However much I may admire the examples of Thomson, Blitzstein, Sessions, Bernstein, Moore, Adams, and Barber, I can't say that people other than me are humming the tunes or eagerly awaiting a second recording. At any rate, it put me in a somewhat sour mood, and I hadn't even heard Thomas's work yet. I resolved to do my best to focus on the goods and to ignore the advertising.

Thomas, born in 1924, has had, for an American composer, a nice career. Of course, it hasn't been in classical composition, but mainly in the popular theater, television, and show business. An American composer generally takes one of four routes: inheriting money or finding a patron (Carter and Copland), teaching (Piston), commercial work (Bernstein), and day job (Ives). The number of people actually making a living from classical composition could be hidden in a flock of whooping cranes.

A pro, Thomas has delivered a professional product. The music derives from various sources, from the Turandot opening, to the Coplandian vocal writing in The Tender Land, to a bit of Barber's Vanessa. This in itself doesn't invalidate the opera. Hanson's Merry Mount is just as derivative. But Hanson puts an individual face to the music. You wouldn't mistake Hanson's music for anybody else's. I can't say the same for Thomas. There's no discernable distinct personality or voice in his opera. The real problem, however, comes into prominence when we look at Thomas's designation of Desire Under the Elms as "An American Folk Opera." This, of course, brings to mind Gershwin's "Folk Opera," Porgy and Bess. Desire is a piece of work from a professional. Porgy, however, comes from a genius. As clumsy as Porgy may be musically compared with Desire, it makes Thomas's work seem like very weak tea indeed, despite a reasonably solid, but not astonishing third act. Thomas's music mainly serves as a vehicle on which to hang the libretto's words. No tune, no sequence, sticks in the memory. There's no equivalent of "What you want with Bess" or the funeral and hurricane scenes. It's all quite pleasant, but where's the power of O'Neill? The music conveys an agreeable Sunday afternoon rather than the desire promised by the title.

How the opera ever attracted the likes of Hadley and Morris puzzles me. I assume both men have other things they could have done instead. Morris's performance is okay, but Thomas doesn't give him a hell of a lot to work with. Hadley's got vocal problems. His voice has taken on a dull finish and he occasionally has trouble with producing a really solid high note. On the other hand, both performers act pretty well for singers. The most dramatically vivid singer is Victoria Livengood, but then she has the most dramatically vivid music.

The CD production is first-class. Manahan leads a world-class orchestra. The well-known Thomas Z. Shepard produced, calling to mind the best, slightly bass-y sound Columbia/CBS achieved in the stereo era.

S.G.S. (April 2003)