Missy Mazzoli deconstructs the American Dream in bracing WNO premiere

Sat Jan 20, 2018 at 5:53 pm

Christopher Kenney and Leah Hawkins in Missy Mazzoli’s “Proving Up” at WNO. Photo: Scott Suchman

Since the dawn of the American Opera Initiative, in 2012, Washington National Opera has produced a string of new operas every year. American composers and American librettists creating American stories sung in English. It is truly an endeavor worthy of the middle word in the company’s name.

Yet over its five years, this admirable initiative has not produced a work that could be called great—until Friday night’s world premiere of Proving Up, the new opera by Missy Mazzoli.

As the composer explained in an interview with Washington Classical Review, the opera explores the limits of the American Dream, through a surreal frontier story by the young American writer Karen Russell. The Zegner family hopes to “prove up,” to meet the demands of the Homestead Act and earn the government title to their land. Other families in Nebraska have achieved this dream, but the Zegners come up against the harsh realities of the frontier.

Mazzoli has created an unvarnished and bleak soundscape for this opera, with few full textures. When the six singers first appear, they intone rising melodic lines reflecting the family’s goals–items they need to achieve to earn the land title, like “Five years of harvest, acres of grain, a window of glass.” These ostinati are repeated like a mantra throughout the opera, a musical sign of the pulsating hope that ripples through the successes and failures of year after year in desperate poverty. The spare production, directed by Alison Moritz, gives the flavor of these desperate circumstances, with a table, a chair, two ladders, and a grimy window giving the impression of the humble house of sod.

The cast of singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program formed an excellent, cohesive ensemble. Baritone Christopher Kenney and powerhouse soprano Leah Hawkins, the best part of the National Symphony Orchestra’s revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest last fall, were reunited as Pa and Ma Zegner. Kenney’s voice reeled with intensity in his explosive role, glissandi representing the influence of the whisky flask gripped in his hand.

Mazzoli gave the most searing vocal writing to Ma Zegner, and Hawkins responded with dramatic weight in her stark aria “I’ll never hate the weeds,” and maternal tenderness in other places. Her wailed high notes in the final scene, as her spirit was finally broken, were shattering, and she brought an unassailable air of dignity to this character trying to hold what was left of her family together.

Tenor Arnold Livingston Geis had a clean, youthful sound as Miles, the younger Zegner son entrusted to take its most prized possession, a glass window needed to meet the demands of the Homestead Act, away to be loaned to another family. Mazzoli described the character’s melismatic runs and turns as inspired by Baroque music, but there was also a Brittenesque quality to her use of the voice type, especially in the major aria for Miles as he rode the family horse across the prairie.

The character’s youthful disconnection from reality is represented by “Pig,” the sock puppet he wears on his hand in the opening scenes and sings to at some length. The only dramatic misstep in the opera was the second aria given to Miles, “What makes a home?”—which was awkwardly inserted at the height of the dramatic climax, bringing the action to a halt.

By contrast the device of the two spectral sisters, ghosts only Miles can hear at least at first, is an ingenious adaptation of one of the more surreal parts of Karen Russell’s story. Soprano Madison Leonard and mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita were beautifully matched in the often close harmonies written for them by Mazzoli. Their keening sound haunted the score, childlike yet menacing.

The sisters play harmonicas near the end of the opera, part of a particularly chilling sound world spun around the appearance of the Sodbuster. Bass Timothy J. Bruno used his dark-hued voice and hulking frame, in a dust-covered, tattered costume (part of the effective design of Lynly Saunders), to sow terror from the moment he first lurched silently across the stage. The character represents for Mazzoli, “the worst manifestation of the American Dream, someone who will get what he wants no matter what, beyond all reason.”

Conductor Christopher Rountree made an effective company debut at the podium, holding together the score’s disparate elements. From the serene introduction the groaning strings, often like croaking insects, hammered dulcimer effect from the old guitars struck by the percussionist, harpsichord clatter, and buzzing harp notes drew the listener into this tormented world.

Alison Moritz directed an economical production that made use of stark lighting (designed by A.J. Guban) and minimal prop pieces to create the barren prairie setting. The sole backdrop was a string curtain, often set billowing in the wind like the barely surviving wheat fields (repurposed from the American Opera Initiative’s production of Better Gods in 2016). 

This visual dryness was an incisive counterpart to the dramatically taut world created by Mazzoli’s score and Vavrek’s libretto. All of the elements of opera combined to make a daring new work that will hopefully see many further productions.

Proving Up will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday. kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600.

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