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BYU’S `TENDER LAND’ TAKES A HEAVENLY TACK

SHARE BYU’S `TENDER LAND’ TAKES A HEAVENLY TACK

Take "The Grapes of Wrath" by way of "The Glass Menagerie," then add "Man's Search for Happiness." And there you have Brigham Young University's production of Aaron Copland's opera "The Tender Land," which premiered Saturday in the de Jong Concert Hall.

I can understand the temptation to tinker with this score. Copland himself reworked it several times before the full three-act version was unveiled in 1955 at Oberlin. Then two years ago at Aspen conductor Murray Sidlin added a prelude drawn from the ballet "Appalachian Spring" - similar in tone if not dramatic intent - and inserted two of the Old American Songs ("Zion's Walls" and "Long Time Ago") to the party scene, reportedly with the composer's blessing.That is the version director Clayne Robison has opted for in this production. Only here the "Appalachian Spring" prologue has been turned into a "pre-existence" ballet of sorts, the images of which accompany the principal characters through the story until they are spiritually reunited at the end.

The result is what the program calls "a choreographed opera of life, framed by eternity." The problem with that is that, for all its simplicity, the basic story raises more questions than it answers.

In the midst of the Depression two drifters arrive at a Midwestern farm. There, on the eve of her graduation from high school - and over the objections of her family - the elder daughter, Laurie, falls in love with one of them and agrees to run off with him. When he abandons her the next morning, she leaves anyway - not to find him but simply to get away from home. And despite the optimism both the music and the libretto strive for at this point, it's hard to shake the notion that it's a tougher world out there than Laurie realizes and she may well have bitten off more than she can chew.

Despite some unevenness, the score itself contains some of Copland's finest music, very much in his rural populist vein. However, the high points as such come fairly early on, specifically the last part of Act 1, the first part of Act 2 - the party scene - and the opening of Act 3. Which means (a) the resolution does not come where it needs to dramatically - i.e., at Laurie's decision to leave - and (b) the interpolations tend to disrupt the piece where it is at its strongest.

Segueing from the middle of "Appalachian Spring," for example, obscures the first theme in the opera, to be recalled several times in connection with the cycle of life. By the same token, Pat Debenham's choreography in the party scene compares favorably with the original (by Eugene Loring), but elsewhere the dancing "images" of Laurie and Martin mainly distract one from the characters themselves.

La Dawn Gardner's Laurie already communicates innocence and hope aplenty, without needing this kind of help. Nor does she let herself be defeated by the occasionally awkward libretto (by Horace Everett, a pseudonymous painter). And although Adam Russell's Martin possesses perhaps the finest voice in the cast, if anything his character could use a little more grit and a little less root beer and cheerios.

At the same time his partner Top (Ross Burnett) is allowed his cusswords, preventing them from coming across too much like home teachers. However, contrary to Copland's clearly defined tenor/baritone/bass split for these two plus Grandpa Moss (Berkley Charlton), what we seemed to have Saturday were three baritones, which not only sabotaged the "Stranger" trio but deprived Grandpa of the weight he needed not only there but in his Act 2 aria.

For it is really in the ensembles that this opera comes alive, especially the Act 1 finale "The Promise of Living" (itself based on "Zion's Walls"). And although conductor Clynn Barrus brought plenty of energy to the proceedings, there were times when a broader, more expansive view would have been welcome. Moreover, to my ears the reduced instrumentation (borrowed from "Appalachian Spring") sits less well on the opera than on the ballet.

Alternate casts will perform Oct. 30 and Nov 1 and 4. Saturday Ruth Christensen's lean and careworn Ma Moss certainly looked right, however. As did the sets, their homespun stylization somewhere between Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Obviously the fact that the libretto was put together by a painter has not been ignored, although it may have been pushing it to group everyone into an "American Gothic"-type pose (complete with pitchfork) for "The Promise of Living."

Still, if only for moments like that, I am convinced this opera is worth saving. I'm just not sure imposing the "plan of salvation" is the way to go about it.