Notes and Editorial Reviews
WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING
Carlisle Floyd: Of Mice and Men
The creation of Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men" was a long, rocky process; no other opera in this composer-writer's canon so exemplifies his almost mystical belief that its final form seemed to exist long before he uncovered it. "I never revised an opera more", Carlisle Floyd recalled as Of Mice and Men was enjoying a flurry of revivals at the turn of the new century, three decades after its premiere in Seattle in 1970. "I played the first act for Kurt Adler at the San Francisco Opera. He turned it down, for reasons I never understood, but I also completely rewrote the first act after that. Two year's work gone. I completely
started over. New libretto, new music. It's the only time I ever did that. One thinks one knows what makes a workable libretto, and then it's clear that nothing works. In the next three years, I was able to salvage some of that original music. Maybe 25% of it found its way back into the completed score." Coherent revision is possible only within a musical language that fully reveals its composer's confidence. Remember, he was writing during the high tide of American serialism and academic snobbishness. His music was none of that. His rhythms evoke an agrarian life and his musical textures imply open space. Wide intervals sing of loneliness, and his tart instrumentation throws edgy shadows around any suggestion of joy or hopefulness. That music tantalizes with its rich references. But reference to what? No true folk tunes have been adapted; no real country dances echo in the background. Yet the music implies all that while finding its own way between traditional songs of the American earth and those craftily composed to incorporate the essence of native music. Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men" stands as complete and whole as a crystal sphere; seamless, polished, able to reflect inner and outer color. The intriguing creative process that went so wrong at the outset, found that perfect sphere and left us "Of Mice and Men."
George Milton: Gordon Hawkins
Lennie Small: Anthony Dean Griffey
Curley: Joseph Evans
Candy: Julian Patrick
Curley's Wife: Elizabeth Futral
Slim: James Maddalena
Carlson: Tyler Smith
Ballad Singer: Scott Scully
Conductor: Patrick Summers
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra & Chorus
R E V I E W S:
Carlisle Floyd (b. 1926) is arguably, along with Philip Glass, the most successful American opera composer. While the latter has staked out his position within a highly stylized avant-gardism, Floyd has embraced and refined an all-American verismo. Of Mice and Men was premiered in 1970, and has legs. It continues to be revived, and this recording of a live performance in a Houston Grand Opera production shows why.
This is one of Floyd’s two most famous operas, the other being his earlier Susannah, which is the only work prior to this that I knew well. In both, the composer evidences a deep empathy with characters that are ordinary folk; his democratic sense dictates that the meanness of their lives should not preclude an appreciation of the depth of their feelings or tragedy of their circumstances. (Wozzeck springs to mind as the closest parallel.) Of Mice and Men is based on the famous John Steinbeck novella; its two main characters, George and Lennie, are itinerant ranch hands hoping for a lucky break to allow them to settle down on a little piece of land all their own. George is the smaller, acerbic, quick-witted one, blessed and cursed with a good heart he has to hide. Lennie, a mentally challenged man-child, has the additional disadvantage of having what today might be called “impulse control issues.” In short, he loves to stroke small furry things, but tends to kill them accidentally. Things come to a head when, at their new job, the boss’s wife, a spoiled and shallow young woman, begins to flirt with the workers. Ultimately, this leads to an encounter with Lennie, where his response goes too far, scares her, causes him to try to silence her, and results in her inadvertent murder. George then has to kill Lennie to prevent a lynching, an act ominously foreshadowed in the second act by the putting down of one of the hands’ dog.
It’s all highly melodramatic; at times, the plot seems pushed farther than necessary to create the conflicts and resultant catastrophes. Indeed, in the current era, it’s impossible to see the story of two men wanting to settle down and live a simple domestic life together in the same light as it would have been viewed (by most) when Steinbeck conceived it. Also disturbing now—for its misogyny—is the role of the boss Curley’s wife, who is a snake in the otherwise all-male garden, disrupting the harmony of masculine camaraderie by her sexual energy and desire for attention.
But these things are all in the source, and I don’t charge them to Floyd, nor do I want to belabor matters of political correctness too much. The story makes for great traditional opera, poignant in its yearning for a happiness that will never be attained, dramatic in its fights, flight, and murder. Floyd has written his own libretto, which is carefully crafted to allow musical correspondences to the drama, and which has an admirable elegance of flow and idiom. The same goes for the music. In Susannah, Floyd wrote the accessible and successful folk opera Copland aspired to in The Tender Land. Of Mice and Men continues in this tradition: the conclusion of the first act is anchored by a pseudo folk song, “Movin’ On”; and the rousing evocation of George and Lennie’s dream home, “We’ll live off the fat of the land,” has a noble, epiphanic quality (even though an underlying dissonance emerges in its course which suggests what will ultimately transpire). Floyd has a natural sense for the fullness of sound and conventions of traditional grand opera, combined with the plainness of both American vernacular music and the spoken language. He also knows how to pace dramatic action. While the work is almost two hours long, it flies by without a stumble or hesitation.
Though this is a work that comes about as close to repertoire as recent opera can get, it’s astonishing that this appears to be its first commercial recording (as far as a variety of Internet searches indicate). And it is a live concert, rather than studio, performance as well. I have no problem with that (the audience noise is minimal, the ambient noise of stagecraft not distracting), and am glad these circumstances haven’t stood in the way of this release. But what a sad commentary that no one can seem to afford the cost of a studio recording of such a piece, when we think of the extraordinary extravagances lavished on the most banal leisure activities throughout our culture. Not a pretty thought.
The performances by the singers, chorus, and orchestra are excellent. Anthony Dean Griffey is heartbreaking as Lennie, projecting a genuine vulnerability. The same poignancy, coming from an entirely different angle, is projected by Gordon Hawkins in his rendition of George. Elizabeth Futral makes the most of a more problematic part, projecting a seething sensuality. James Maddalena suggests a quiet authority in the supporting role of Slim. I was particularly impressed by the superb diction of the cast; this is one recorded English-language opera to which one can listen and comprehend the vast majority without constantly consulting the libretto (and of course that’s a tribute as well to the skills of the composer).
This is an important addition to the recorded repertoire of American opera, and highly recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd
Joseph Evans (Tenor),
Julian Patrick (Baritone),
Gordon Hawkins (Bass Baritone),
Elizabeth Futral (Soprano),
James Maddalena (Baritone),
Tyler Smith (Tenor),
Scott Scully (Tenor),
Anthony Dean Griffey (Tenor)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra,
Houston Grand Opera Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: by 1970; USA
Length: 112 Minutes 31 Secs.
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