- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

Local audiences tend to resist the Washington Opera's annual presentation of an American opera, despite Artistic Director Placido Domingo's mighty efforts. But the company's current production of Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men" adapted from the novella and play by John Steinbeck might just change a few minds.

Bleak, moody and driven by a sense of foreboding, this stunning co-production with Austria's Bregenz Festival and the Houston Opera is sympathetic in many ways, yet fatalistic in its approach.

Mr. Steinbeck, one of America's greatest novelists and social critics, was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962. He produced such works as "The Grapes of Wrath," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1940. But since his death in 1968, his works and his reputation seem to have been put in the deep freeze by left-wing critics and Marxist professors affronted by his support for President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

"Of Mice and Men" focuses on Depression-era bottom dogs who wanted little out of life but a roof over their heads. It is a naturalistic tale of migrant American laborers down on their luck. George Milton and Lennie Small drift from farm to farm, picking up odd jobs and staying one step ahead of the law.

A giant of a man, the slow-witted but normally gentle Lennie has a fondness for all things soft and cuddly, including field mice, puppy dogs and women. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to squeeze the life out of the objects of his affection, ultimately with tragic consequences.

First staged by the Seattle Opera in 1970, Mr. Floyd's operatic adaptation of Mr. Steinbeck's work is an astringent blending of socialist realism and modern sensibilities. The composer, serving as his own librettist, whittles the story to its essence. He merges a few characters to simplify the strands of the action.

Unlike his "Susannah," Mr. Floyd's "Of Mice and Men" is written in a late verismo style devoid of singable tunes. Nonetheless, the work is tonal, if occasionally dissonant, and loaded with musical leitmotifs underpinning each character. It breaks into lyricism only when George and Lennie sing of their dream of owning a small farm where they can live "off the fat of the land."

"Of Mice and Men" is on of those rare operas whose vocal roles are almost exclusively male. Fortunately, the Washington Opera production stars two superb singer-actors in the lead roles. Bass-baritone Rod Nelman as George is at once a loyal friend and a hopeless dreamer. Taking on the responsibility of the childlike Lennie, Mr. Nelman's George alternately rages at his charge's skill in getting them into trouble, yet supports him like a son when they dream together of a better future. Mr. Nelman's voice is crisp and clear, and his command of his complex character makes the opera's genuinely teary denouement all the more heart-rending.

Tenor Michael Hendrick as Lennie gives what probably will be regarded as one of this season's great performances. He negotiated Lennie's difficult vocal part with only the slightest sign of strain during last week's premiere. From the standpoint of stage drama, he imbued his character with layers of complexity, joining extremely physical acting to a surprisingly sweet tenor voice that makes Lennie's dark side all the more jarring. Mr. Hendrick's Lennie is clearly good at heart but not in touch at all with normal human boundaries or appropriate behavior, or most particularly with his own strength. Like fellow ranch-hand Candy's worn-out old dog, which is finally put down by a co-worker, there is only one possible ending for a misfit such as Lennie.

The singing of the opera's supporting cast in solo and ensemble was beautifully calibrated if a bit understated. Baritone Victor Benedetti (Slim) and bass Tony Dillon (Candy) turned in particularly affecting performances, although tenor Joseph Evans' nasty foreman, Curley, was a bit over the top more the fault of the libretto, perhaps, than the soloist.

Ditto to some extent for soprano Diane Alexander's portrayal of Curley's wife. Much more sympathetically limned in the stage version, Curley's wife here is a cowgirl tart looking for trouble. The composer assigned to this role some of the most unpleasant, discordant solos in the opera. Nevertheless, Miss Alexander sang her ungrateful role well, with an acid edge adding to the dramatic tension.

This bleak production sets a new high standard for understated modernism. Its rust-and-gray duotones are married to Soviet constructivism, brilliantly conjuring up Depression-era memories seasoned with "Mad Max's" apocalyptic sensibilities. Haunting opening and closing scenes are set in a blasted, rusting rail yard outlined by a power grid spiraling over the distant horizon.

Stage direction for "Of Mice and Men" is handled skillfully by Francesca Zambello, who seems to have a keen and sympathetic ear for working-class vernacular. The Washington Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Karen Keltner, blends seamlessly and unobtrusively with the voices to create an ensemble sound at once menacing and yet oddly familiar, given our anxiety since Sept. 11. Miss Keltner is music director of the San Diego Opera.

This Washington Opera production of "Of Mice and Men," with its uncannily American music, idiom and setting, gives the lie to the notion that American composers are incapable of writing first-class opera. It is at least as good as the more critically acclaimed operas of the late Englishman Benjamin Britten. But you'll have to experience this for yourself.


***1/2

WHAT: "Of Mice and Men"

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 2 p.m. tomorrow, 8 p.m. Wednesday and Nov. 6 and 9, and 7 p.m. Nov. 3 and 12

TICKETS: $85 to $255

PHONE: 202/295-2400, 202/467-4600 or online at www.dc-opera.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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