STILL Highway One, USA • Steven Amundson, cond; Louise Toppin (Mary); Robert Honeysucker (Bob); Ray M. Wade Jr. (Nate); Pamela Dillard (Aunt Lou); St. Olaf O; Vocalessence Ensemble • VISIONARY VIS734 (47:56 Text and Translation) Live: 2004
IRead more have seen the opinion expressed that the operas of William Grant Still (1895–1978) are unjustly ignored and underperformed, especially in this country, because he was an African American. It is said that he decried the fact that opera companies would mount Porgy and Bess but perform none of his operas (some nine works, apparently). While I don’t mean to ignore this issue, I don’t feel particularly qualified to address it, so I will leave it to the sociologists and academicians more familiar with the composer’s work. What I can address, and will, is the opera in hand, Highway One, and this recorded performance of it.
The actual U.S. Highway 1 meanders down the California coastline for a few hundred miles and passes through some truly beautiful scenic areas as well as the middle of bustling San Francisco, but the farthest south it goes is Orange County. I doubt that locale is what Still had in mind for his setting “in a small southern town in the 1940s,” so we might imagine we are on a hypothetical Highway 1 that winds through sleepy little towns in the South where one might find just such a mom-and-pop gas station and two-room cottage as described here.
The short opera is played in two scenes. In the first, wife Mary expresses joy that she and her husband Bob’s financial sacrifices are finally over now that his brother, Nate, is graduating from college. Bob, who is preparing to travel to the graduation, says he is doing it not for his brother’s sake but because he promised his mother on her deathbed to look after Nate, and they will still have a continuing obligation to see that Nate gets off to a proper start in his life endeavors. Mary expresses some reservations to Aunt Lou about Nate, but it is clear Bob is hearing none of it. In scene 2, it is a year later and it is becoming clear even to Bob that perhaps his brother is underperforming as a human being. He sleeps in, lets Mary prepare all his meals, and is lazy and shiftless, contributing nothing to the household or helping out in the gas station. Mary treats Nate with sarcasm and irony and he is not bright enough to recognize it for what it is; he believes Mary’s mocking is expressing her admiration and desire, and so he makes a crude pass. Mary is finally driven to laugh directly at Nate’s egotistical misapprehensions; she tells him she loves only Bob. In a flash of anger, Nate stabs Mary with a knife. Bob and Aunt Lou rush in, believing Nate has killed Mary. When the medics and sheriff arrive, Bob heeds his brother’s pleading and takes responsibility for the act. Mary, not mortally wounded, is soon revived and immediately blames Nate. It is only then, when Bob has almost lost the most important person in his life, realization sets in that his selfless service and loyalty to his brother is misplaced, bringing only hardship and misfortune to Mary. Nate is taken out of their life in handcuffs and one hopes Bob has learned a lesson.
Highway One is a nice little opera, but to my mind, no neglected masterpiece. I suppose one could label it verismo, but the crime (assault?) pales against the double murder in Pagliacci or the fatal revenge elicited in Cavalieria rusticana. It is also short (unlike Porgy and Bess), some 48 minutes, and would require a companion piece in the theater. The music is nicely done; it slides back and forth between recitative and the more lyrical passages without any delineation, as so many modern works do. It is tonal and tuneful in sections, and the orchestra plays a strong, interesting role. But, there are better modern works out there that don’t require two operas in one evening. Finally, although the cast here is all African American, the work does not seem to require it in language or in setting; the poor dysfunctional family could be Southern whites or even Chinese (I might rule out Japanese in the 1940s).The notion that the action describes a uniquely African-American slice of life to me does not ring true; this kind of situation could happen to anyone, and I find it difficult to believe that Still meant it as such.
The cast in this production is strong without being definitive. Bob is sung by baritone Robert Honeysucker, who displays a fine baritone voice but exhibits little in the way of emotive or dramatic coloring in his role, where such great opportunities lie. It is not her fault, but light lyric soprano Louise Toppin sounds a bit chirpy singing against the rich baritone of Honeysucker, a bit like Edith Bunker remonstrating with Archie. The tessitura required is written quite high and Toppin acquits herself well, but the vocal lines can’t help but make a statement as to dramatic effect; perhaps Still would have done better to write Mary in a lower range, or as a mezzo. Tenor Ray M. Wade Jr. and mezzo-soprano Pamela Dillard, as Nate and Aunt Lou, respectively, sing well in brief appearances. Orchestral and choral forces perform with distinction. The sheriff is not identified.
I enjoyed hearing Highway One; it held my interest and piqued my curiosity as to Still’s other works for the stage. The booklet is of quality, with short essays, synopsis, and the English text provided. I recommend this recording to the equally curious and those adventurous readers seeking something new.
Highway One, USAby William Grant Still Performer:
Louise Toppin (Soprano),
Robert Honeysucker (Tenor),
Ray M. Wade (Tenor),
Pamela Dillard (Mezzo Soprano)
St. Olaf Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: USA Length: 47 Minutes 9 Secs. Notes: Composition written: USA (1942). Composition revised: USA (1943).
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Attractive RarityJanuary 18, 2018By J. Grove (Jacksonville, FL)See All My Reviews"For starters, I must correct the second paragraph of the Fanfare review quoted with the listing for this recording. The critic has confused California State Highway 1 with the route that Still actually refers to, which is U.S. Highway 1, running along our nation's east coast from northern Maine to Key West, Florida. The photo on the CD's cover should have clarified that, as it depicts a sign showing the distinctive shield that is only used for officially designated U.S. highways. Thus, the setting is not hypothetical or mythical, as the reviewer suggests, but quite real. I've told friends of mine to think of this opera as a sort of "Cavalleria South Carolina." The critic is correct in maintaining that the opera is not a neglected masterpiece, but nevertheless a work that rewards listening. The story is logically motivated, though perhaps the setup is too lengthy for the payoff. The characters feel genuine, and the musical setting suits them, their time period, and the local culture. I particularly like the chorus "Mary and Bob are friends staunch and able" in Scene 1, and Nate's aria "Mary, you're wonderful" in Scene 2. There's even a melodic line late in the opera that prefigures by some years the tune of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story." The cast, as the critic writes, is good without necessarily being superb. We're probably not going to get another recording of this opera, however, and these singers certainly put the piece across with style. I wish that the recording had more than two tracks (one for each scene); it would be nice to access some of the set pieces without having to speed-scan through large chunks of a given scene. I first encountered Still's music decades ago when PBS telecast his full-length opera "A Bayou Legend," and my record collection now includes all five of his symphonies in addition to assorted chamber works and even a colorful one-act ballet. He's an important voice in the panoply of American music, and he does deserve wider acclaim and performance than he has received so far."Report Abuse