Herbert Wolff Reviews "An American Tragedy"

Jul 31, 2014

In our youth, many of us were compelled to read a particular novel written by an American author.  I don’t mean compelled as a school assignment, but compelled when the work was deemed an American classic – bringing to light areas of our culture that we were not likely to personally experience.  Think Grapes of Wrath or Catcher in the Rye.

One such classic is Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.  Published in 1925, it is a dramatic telling of youthful ambition, wherein a man raised by poor -- but pious –parents yearns for higher financial and social status.  But ultimately – as he is about to reach both goals – his fate must rely upon prayer and other support, as a jury listens to, and deliberates, whether he is guilty of a murder.

Dreiser’s novel is based on actual happenings in a small Adirondack community in 1906.  A man is on trial for the murder of a young woman who was carrying his child.  Dreiser was so intrigued that he gathered and saved every newspaper account of the investigation and trial.  The name of the accused was Chester Gillette; in Dreiser’s novel he is Clyde Griffith; thus, though Dreiser changed the names, he kept the initials the same.

The novel inspired stage and motion picture adaptations.  As early as 1929, Erwin Piscator – a German theater director – staged his treatment of the novel in Germany and brought it to the U.S. in 1932.  And, of course, Hollywood had a go at it, with a movie directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1939…and, more memorably, in the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelly Winters.

In 2005, the Dreiser classic became an opera, with music by Thomas Picker and libretto by Gene Scheer.  Premiering at the Metropolitan Opera, the highly acclaimed work was directed by Francesca Zambello – now Artistic and General Director of Glimmerglass Music Festival, where An American Tragedy is enjoying an exciting revival.  Ms. Zambello is quoted as saying, after the Met production, “I always thought it would be interesting to see it with performers who are closer to the age of the protagonists… making the opera more accessible for smaller theaters and even universities.”  She has more than succeeded.  Directed by Peter Kazaras, with George Manahan conducting, the current production is filled with credible young artists, and the Glimmerglass setting complements the story and the music.

The opera has been considerably revised.  Composer Picker and lyricist Scheer felt there was too much emphasis on the background of the central character…dwelling on his childhood and upbringing, hoping to explain his actions.  The new, more intimate version emphasizes Clyde’s interactions with those he believes will offer him immediate social and material comfort.

The music and lyrics easily move the story along, helping the audience understand shifts in the characters’ moods, and reality of the events. The duets and trios are particularly effective, with sensitive and expressive harmonies.

And, the cast is superb.  In the leading role as Clyde, Christian Bowers impresses with the vocal and physical qualities that capture every moment of the joy, fear, and sorrow that besets this ambitious young man.  The seduced young Roberta is sung by Vanessa Isiguen, who delivers a stirring and sympathetic performance.  Cynthia Cook splendidly conveys a society girl’s contrasting notions of happiness.  As Clyde’s mother, Patricia Schuman’s rich voice lends memorable passion to the final scenes of the show.

In fact, kudos also must be directed to every singer, musician, and designer involved in this production…another standout for Glimmerglass.

An American Tragedy plays in repertory through August 24th at Glimmerglass Musical Festival, Cooperstown, New York.

Herbert Wolff studied under the guidance of Lee Strasberg and subsequently had roles with summer theater companies in upstate New York and on “live” television.He is former vice president of International Television Association and former Chairman of Massachusetts Advisory Council on Scientific and Technical Education. Herb continues to write, direct and appear in stage plays. For 25 years he has been the on-air reviewer of theater and opera productions for WAMC/Northeast Public Radio.

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