Last Monday night I was at Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Met. Whenever I go to the opera, it is like a performance for me. I have to take a nap in the afternoon, fuss with finding someone to go with me (no matter how liberated I may be as a woman, I still don’t enjoy going out alone), have a full but light meal beforehand, and only then am I ready to properly take in the 3-hour musical venue.

By some fluke, I ended up with an orchestra seat, and the local crop of mink coats was contrasted by my inexpensive, but politically correcter faux-mink lined jean jacket, which I actually had to wrap around myself, as it was a bit drafty. Nevertheless, and despite the mousseux at intermission, I was able to stay awake through the entire opera and listen up to the very last note, which was, unexpectedly, a clever unison very much like an electronic tone, so as to suggest the current of the electric chair.

It was a plentiful and cheerful audience for a tragedy… An ambitious young man (Clyde) is torn between a relationship with a working girl (Roberta) and a new love interest (Sondra) in a higher social circle. When Roberta becomes pregnant, she begs him to marry her. He is hesitant, and they argue on a boat. She falls off, but he doesn’t try to rescue her. From this treatment of the story, I was left wondering whether the young man was actually guilty of premeditated crime or if the event could have been an accident – Clyde’s possible innocence adds another dramatic dimension to the opera. We are becoming more and more immune to tragedy and crime, both from real life experience and from film and television. After the tenth time you watch a corpse being dissected, the whole process becomes a ‘been there done that’, and I believe our sensitivity to violence and emotion is eroding. And apparently, there was nothing to make anyone cry at American Tragedy, which may be for the best.

The reason I am paying so much attention to this piece is that it was a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, and, according to the composer, “the most fulfilling experience of [his] composing life”, dedicated to his mother and father. Note that it took between 1996 and 2005 for the work to come to completion, partly due to some difficulties in obtaining the rights to the book by Theodore Dreiser.

The performance was flawless, with a notable highlight from Elvira Griffiths: an exquisite two-octave jump at the end of the second act. The staging was the most successful I have seen to-date at the Met. I can see the good work of dramaturge Francesca Zambello, combined with tasteful, modern sets by Adrianne Lobel, lighting by James Ingalls and choreography by Doug Varone. The set was based on grid of very large squares that glided sideways to open, revealing a new scene, and sometimes two simultaneous scenes on two different levels – making the spectator ubiquitous, able to look at two events at the same time in two different locations. This is a novel style of staging – I have only seen this done with film, like a split screen showing several different scenes simultaneously. This was very effective when showing Clyde with Sondra (rich girl) and Roberta (poor girl) on another level. The boat scene was done in silhouette high up on the stage and it unexpectedly showed Roberta drowning at a lower level. The staging didn’t rely on antique furniture and realistic sets, it was appropriately contemporary. The period costumes on the other hand were fanciful – I wonder when someone will be allowed a monochromatic color scheme for costumes at the Met – the sponsors might object: “can’t they afford different colors?” As it is, the female costumes are unavoidably varied in color as in classic Hollywood 1950s musicals, like one blue, one pink, one orange, one green. But within this framework, there was obviously as effort made towards subtler effects. At the end, the performers ran towards the front of the stage to take a bow, which may have been a bit too chipper after the execution scene, but indicated their level of enthusiasm for the piece.This new opera actually worked very well for the Met. It was received with warmth and excitement, and I hope that the Met will commission new works more often.

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