In their Americas season, the In Series tackles the quintessentially American composer Aaron Copland and his only and almost entirely unknown opera The Tender Land. Horace Everett wrote the libretto for this piece inspired by photos of share croppers during the Great Depression. It was originally written for television – something that can be said of very few operas. It was never filmed, but did premiere to very little fanfare in the 1954.
Artistic Director Carla Hübner, who met Copland years ago, speculates that it’s performed so infrequently because it is too small for a large company but too complicated for most small companies. The In Series is up to the challenge.
It starts on a simple set by Osbel Susman-Peña with real scraggly trees and a windmill to invoke a Midwestern farm with a simple house that is also a scrim that showcases the lighting design by Stefan Johnson which conjures the prairie sky.
The costumes by Donna Breslin fit the time – right down to the flannel bedecked orchestra, lead by Stanley Thurston. The music is classic Copland with big chords, tricky runs, lots of cadences, and hints of fiddle and American roots music. The 10-person orchestra tackles it all and does justice to the big sounds for this obviously challenging score.
The story is a classic coming of age tale of Laurie Moss and her family and two drifters who come looking for work on the day before she graduates from high school. She has a lot of growing up to do in a single day. Director Steven Scott Mazzola makes good use of the fence that separates the farm from the rest of the world – many characters end up at the gate, staring into the great beyond – bringing life to the themes of the wandering road vs. working the land.
Elizabeth Mondragon (Ma Moss) is the perfect matriarch and shines on “This is like the dress I never had” and the fun quick duet with her younger daughter Beth (Arya Balian) on “Goodness it’s getting late.” She also has the final word of the opera “All Thinking’s Done.” An anthem for mothers of growing daughters everywhere.
Melissa Chavez (Laurie Moss) is a rising star with a powerful soprano that filled the theater for “Once I thought I’d never grow” and her triumphant “The sun is coming up.” She also sounds lovely with Nicholas Carratura (Martin), her hapless new love on “Laurie Laurie… Martin, Martin.”
He has a nice tenor and sings often with Andrew Thomas Pardini (Top), his fellow drifter on songs like “We’ve been North and we’ve been South.” Pardini also thrives on the quick and tricky “Oh I was goin’a courtin’.” Scott Sedar (Grandpa Moss) is the force of the play and has a beautiful bass. His trio with Carratura and Pardini “A stranger may seem stranger” is a beautiful, playful, complicated song.
The most famous song of the piece, “The Promise of Living” is an anthem of the American dream, which had the whole on stage creating a wall of sound and promise. The other big ensemble number “Stomp your foot upon the floor” accompanied a huge square dance with choreography by Angelisa Gillyard.
The Tender Land is a true opera of America, with Copland’s fingerprints on every note. It’s a challenging score and emotional story. The In Series production of The Tender Land is moving and fun, brought to life by these dedicated performers and musicians. It’s a fresh and ambitious production of this American gem.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minutes intermission.
The Tender Land plays through October 25, 2015 at the In Series performing at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.