Copland's `Tender Land' tested in smaller scale

Aaron Copland wrote his second opera, ``The Tender Land,'' with the idea of performance on television. He later admitted that he also had in mind a music college's performance limitations when writing it, though those schools have not made it their own. In fact, since its world premi`ere at the New York City Opera in 1954, its performance record has been spotty. It has most recently been mounted by the Long Wharf Theatre in a new 13-instrument chamber version of the score. (The last performance is Sunday.)

The score is unmistakably the Copland of ``Appalachian Spring.'' The moods and sounds of that 16-instrument ballet score clearly inspired Murry Sidlin to adapt the opera (with, it must be pointed out, the full blessing of the composer).

The opera takes place in 16 hours on the eve and dawn of Laurie Moss's graduation day. She is a feisty lass who is on the verge of adulthood, straining at the family ties. Because she finds herself smitten by Martin, a roaming farmhand, she leaves her mother, sister, and grandfather the morning they all were to go watch her graduate.

Even today, her actions seem uncommonly self-centered rather than self-expressive. In 1954, they must have appeared truly brazen.

But Horace Everett's libretto does not make us care about, or understand, her decision. Because of this serious weakness, there is nothing that Copland could do to make us really feel moved by Laurie's plight and her ultimate resolve.

And somehow, Arvin Brown's straightforward, hands-off direction only accentuates this conflict.

The production is visually effective, however, thanks to Michael H. Yeargan's evocative American farmhouse set. Unfortunately, the casting seemed to have been done for appearance rather than vocal type, resulting in a performance that moved well enough theatrically but offered no pleasures operatically.

The mother, played by Kristen Hurst-Hyde, looks not much older than her daughter, Laurie, portrayed by Jamie Louise Baer. Miss Baer bears an resemblance to Sandy Duncan, and also radiates Miss Duncan's chirpy, up-tempo aura, which makes the denouement even more unsatisfying.

Clearly, Mr. Sidlin's reductions should make this work more accessible to a wide variety of performance groups. There are enough set pieces for good singers to shine in, without putting unrealistic demands on them.

If some real care were taken to gloss over the flaws of the ending, Copland's ``The Tender Land'' might find a comfortable niche somewhere.

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