Notes and Editorial Reviews
Highway One, USA
Steven Amundson, cond; Louise Toppin (
); Robert Honeysucker (
); Ray M. Wade Jr. (
); Pamela Dillard (
); St. Olaf O; Vocalessence Ensemble
VISIONARY VIS734 (47:56
Text and Translation) Live: 2004
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,
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.
is a nice little opera, but to my mind, no neglected masterpiece. I suppose one could label it
, but the crime (assault?) pales against the double murder in
or the fatal revenge elicited in
. 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
; 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.
FANFARE: Bill White
Works on This Recording
Highway One, USA by William Grant Still
Louise Toppin (Soprano),
Robert Honeysucker (Tenor),
Ray M. Wade (Tenor),
Pamela Dillard (Mezzo Soprano)
St. Olaf Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Length: 47 Minutes 9 Secs.
Notes: Composition written: USA (1942).
Composition revised: USA (1943).
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