If forced to limit a review of Opera North’s
production of The Tender Land to only three words, they would be these: American, so very. Said to be inspired by the photographs taken by Walker Evans in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Tender Land is a story of the 1930s small town farm belt. In contrast to the charm of the opening scene of the child, Beth, with pet goat, Daniel, the set belies any notions of Midwestern wholesomeness and cheer. A stark and splintering front porch, one imagines that even the potentially happy thwack of the faded green screen door is bound to be tired and muffled, like those who live there. Except for Laurie in her white dress waiting for graduation day. Jenna Siladie’s character is the personification of youth and hope. Even as she is uncertain of her future, she is holding onto the very thing that seems in short supply: a sense of possibility. Somewhat improbably, the possibility takes the form of one of two drifters who appear looking for work. Martin, played convincingly by Jesse Dardin, soon becomes Laurie’s ticket out. When he changes his mind, Laurie does not even think of unpacking her suitcase. Grandpa Moss (Kian Freitas), folksy, patriarchal and overbearing, sings “I will keep my Laurie girl at home.” Laurie declares “My life was here but now I am sure it’s there.” The restlessness, the moving on even if none of us, Laurie included, knows where “there” is, presents the archetypal American love of mobility and change. The themes presented showcase other familiar and dark sides of American small town life. Act One asks: Are strangers to be trusted, taken in as part of the community or viewed with suspicion? In Act Two we learn that “a dangerous thing imagination can be.” Does pinning one’s hopes on one’s children empower or shackle them? Is it old men—like Grandpa Moss—who are still making all of the rules and bossing around the women folk in the process? Aaron Copland’s score and Horace Everett’s libretto are American too. The music is challenging, sometimes discordant, energetic. Act One’s finale, The Promise of Living, is beautiful and melodic. The dialogue is plain and folkish, not gussied-up, as the characters talk about empty bellies and getting drunk. The Tender Land did not easily find its footing when it opened at the New York City Opera in 1954. Critics complained of a weak storyline and less than fully developed characters, both of which seem fair commentary. As an occasional writer of vignettes, it helped me to think of this as more vignette than narrative in style, more snapshot than feature film. All of which left plenty to the imagination and drew me to one character, Ma Moss (Emily Geller). A little sour, wary, distrustful, maybe a slightly upscale version of the migrant mother in the famed Dorothea Lange photo, with that same tiredness of soul. Laurie says of her, “Once all her steps were like dancing.” It caught my ear. Why once? What is Ma Moss’s backstory? The final scene brings the younger sister Beth back to the stage, doll in hand. Ma Moss laments Laurie’s absence, and turns her attentions to Beth. Is Beth the well-loved child on whom Ma will now pin her hopes, or is she captive to Ma and the forces that have dimmed her mother’s light? Having seen and written about Opera North’s West Side Story just days ago, a tip of the hat goes to the stage directors, designers and crew. They are juggling three productions, setting up and striking a set just about every evening for the entire season. Linda Copp has choreographed a dance that injects levity and energy after a brooding first act. The ensemble nature of the productions is fun; in The Tender Land, one spots West Side Story’s glamour couple Tony and Maria in supporting roles. The Tender Land can be seen on August 9 at 2:00 pm and on August 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at www.operanorth.org.