Don’t expect the Tom Taylor comedy Lincoln attended the night he got shot. The opera tells the story of the Lincoln assassination seen through the viewpoints mainly of the actors in Ford’s Theater. The effect comes close to what it would be like if Hamlet were told by the company of players. One notes a lot of talk about the Founding Fathers these days, and other than the cynical manipulations of those figures and their thought according to whatever party line, it probably goes through and over most people’s heads. Modern us is separated from that time by the Civil War and its aftermath, particularly the election of Hayes. The death of Lincoln was also the death of the thought and the way of thinking of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. We became a much different country: more corporate, more sanctimonious and self-centered, more beholden to money, smaller. That’s a lot for one opera to deal with, but Eric Sawyer and his librettist, John Shoptaw, take it on.
Shoptaw supplies a brilliant libretto. The action takes place on three different levels: the actors’ lives backstage, the play itself, and the audience. Furthermore, these levels mix with one another. Significantly, I think, only one character wanders through all three worlds—John Wilkes Boothe, like Cain never at home in any of them. Shoptaw’s language is at once appropriate to each character and richly allusive to events outside the immediate plot, somewhat like an actor tailoring “ad libs” for the new town he’s in. In fact, precisely that happens during the performance, as the hero’s birthplace changes from Taylor’s Vermont to Lincoln’s “Hillynoise.” A subtler use of image comes to the fore in the actors’ backstage arias. Harry Hawk, who plays the American cousin, Asa, has learned of the death in battle of his paid substitute, thus fulfilling a disquieting recurring dream:
I’m walking a corduroy road.
The moon is cut in two.
A whole blue field is falling,
thickly and quietly,
like melting snow.
The corduroy road of course refers to Sherman’s march through Georgia, where the Union army had to pull heavy equipment through muddy routes, which they “paved” with logs. “Cut in two” refers to the country torn apart, the “blue field” to the fallen Union soldiers, with the Whitman-like “thickly and quietly” (“incessantly, softly”) afterthought. Shoptaw’s a real poet.
Sawyer fails to reach anywhere near the same level. Not one idea really grabs you. Technically, Sawyer has demonstrated capability, but not inspiration. The meat of the libretto simply goes by, like the “crawl” at the bottom of a screen on a cable news channel. The musical characterizations are bland because the idiom is bland. Simply compare Sawyer’s audience with Mussorgsky’s crowds in Boris to measure the artistic difference. Sawyer actually does best setting the Taylor play. It’s where the opera consistently becomes dramatically alert and alive.
For the most part, the performances don’t help. Janna Batty as Laura Keene alone manages to make something of her part, to imply that the music means something more than what Sawyer actually wrote. Gil Rose and his orchestra (Sawyer uses essentially a pit band) do well with what they get, but they can’t save the opera. A wonderful libretto, wasted.
S.G.S. (October 2008)