Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
“These are the mountains that give us such beauty,
There are the meadows that give us such summer.”
– Joan Vail Thorne
When Margaret Lattimore and Michael Chioldi sang these words last night my eyes filled with tears. What a lovely, moving tribute to our beautiful Berkshires. I felt then, early in the first act of “Summer” the newly commissioned opera based on Edith Wharton’s novella of the same name, that composer Stephen Paulus and librettist Joan Vail Thorne had got it right. They had established the strong connection between the heroine, Charity Royall, and nature.
Certainly just seeing David P. Gordon’s set, spectacular in its simplicity, with Jan Hartley’s gorgeous slides projected on to it and you knew you were in the Berkshires. Gordon has created huge sliding panels of weathered grey clapboard wall which glide in from the wings and down from the flyspace in the Robert Boland Theatre at Berkshire Community College. These form frames on the three level floor, and at the very back are a series of triangles, made of the same weathered clapboards. Just long, low obtuse triangles jutting up from the floor, but immediately you knew they were the Berkshires.
On to the walls and the scrim behind the “hills”, Hartley has designed a series of lovely images to project. Sometimes realistic photographs, and sometimes images representative of an idea or a place. They had a three dimensional effect, like looking into my childhood Viewmaster. I craned my neck at intermission trying to catch a glimpse of the projector up in the booth to see if it was stereoscopic, but failed.
Okay, so the set was fabulous and accurately represented the beauty of the Berkshires. What about the opera?
Well, It was a thrill to sit in that theatre watching full-dress rehearsal of an opera based on a book set in the Berkshires by an author who lived here for many years being given its world-premiere in Pittsfield. Paulus is a celebrated modern classical composer and adapting “Summer” was a dream of his since 1980 – long before it became the dream of the many Berkshire county cultural institutions involved in this production. The singers were all first rate – capable of acting as well as singing professionally. The orchestra, under the leadership of Joel Revzen, sounded great.
There are two questions when looking at a theatrical work “adapted from” or “based on” a literary work. 1) Does it work on the stage all by itself, even if you have never read the book? and 2) Does it have the right to take the title of the book as its own, does it accurately capture the authors intentions?
In this case the answer to question number one is yes, and the answer to question number two is no. I had high hopes in the first act when I found the relationship between Charity and nature so strongly established, but all that was lost in the much weaker second act – weaker in plot and its treatment of Wharton’s original, not weaker musically. What Paulus, Vail Thorne and stage director Mary Duncan have mounted is a squeaky clean version of “Summer”. All the blood and sweat and earth-bound suffering of the book are removed. I would not recommend reading Wharton’s book or seeing the stage adaptation at Shakespeare & Company before attending the opera. If you do, you will be disappointed by the bloodlessness of this interpretation.
Alas, part of the problem is the casting of the beautiful and talented Margaret Lattimore as Charity. Her biggest drawback, poor thing, is her beauty. Lattimore is not beautiful like those anorexic, hollowed cheeked supermodels, but in a great perfection of womanhood. She is blonde, blessed was a lovely curvy figure and a flawless complexion. Her eyes glow and her hair glistens. She looks like Cinderella, some beautiful princess ready to burst forth in glory, and she sings like an angel. Charity Royall is a 17-year-old misfit from the “other side of the tracks” with a bad temper and few friends. Lattimore is just so darned pretty and warm and winning that she cannot be Charity. She cannot represent the turbulence of adolescence, or the agony of being an outcast. Lattimore is the right singer but the wrong actress for this role.
So this is a wonderful, exciting new opera given a bang-up staging. It does right by the Berkshires and it does right musically. But it fails our own beloved Edith Wharton in strange and mysterious ways. Her “Summer” is such a passionate and operatic book that bringing it into the opera canon seems obvious, so why omit all the most passionate and operatic parts? Vail Thorne writes in her program notes of the agonies she suffered adapting the book, how she was visited by “Wharton ghosts” in the middle of the night and how she craves our pardon and their’s for the omissions she chose to make. Wonderful and faithful as her libretto is in parts, I am not sure that the ghosts will grant her that pardon.
“Summer” will be performed August 28 at 8 PM, August 31 at 2 PM, and September 2 and 4 at 8 PM at the Robert Boland Theatre in the Kousevitsky Arts Center at Berkshire Community College, 1305 West Street in Pittsfield. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Call the Berkshire Opera Company box office at 413-443-7400 for tickets and information.
Before the August 31 and September 2 & 4 performances there will be a free hour-long slide lecture on the places and people in the Berkshires which inspired Wharton with noted Wharton author and historian Scott Marshall in room K-111 adjacent to the Boland Theatre. Further information can be obtained by calling the box office at 413-443-7400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999