Robert Carl
November 1, 2008

This is a wonderful surprise. When the Editor proposed the disc, from the title I suspected it would be about the Lincoln assassination, as Our American Cousin was the name of the play performed that evening in Ford’s Theater. But I did not know the composer, Eric Sawyer (b. 1962), nor his librettist John Shoptaw, and knew nothing of this opera, which is truly “hot off the press,” having been premiered in Boston just last year. Perhaps my ignorance was a blessing, because I came into the critical process blissfully free of any preconceptions, and the freshness of this piece hit me full face.

The work explores the relation between art and life, encapsulated in the confrontation between the play (a rather trivial farce) and the tumultuous events surrounding it. It asks whether art is a respite, a genuine escape, or just an act of denial in the face of life’s demands and tragedies. To its credit, it doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Indeed, I’d like at the start to cite Shoptaw’s libretto as one of the most original and substantive I’ve encountered in years. There are elements of historical realism, personal confession and soliloquy, surrealistic dream, and the “play within a play.” The work avoids easy categorization, and at the end I felt I’d encountered something both light and substantive, an admirable combination.

Sawyer’s music is essentially conservative, but it never panders to easy evocations of the past or facile pastiche. Indeed, I’d say it’s “Ivesian” in its practice of combining elements of traditional and modern, historical and contemporary, popular and classical. But it’s also beautifully crafted, with a restraint that partakes as much of American neo-Classicism as the wilder Ivesian ride.

Over its three acts my interest never flagged. Though one knows the ending, how its creators will structure the tale is always intriguing and leads us on. After pre-performance backstage activities in the first act, the second takes us (like the historical audience) so deep into the play it’s easy to forget what is about to happen. And of course the third act creates the splintering of realities in the face of unsupportable horror.

If I have any criticism, it is that in the third act I feel Sawyer’s music doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its preceding two. It’s full of great moments (actress/troupe director Laura Keene’s final aria; the last appearance of Lincoln’s ghost, accompanied only by fragile and mournful banjo arpeggios), but the catastrophic crash between the illusion of the play and the reality of the murder-so horrible that it seems even more dreamlike-doesn’t feel to me fully supported by the music. I feel that the music should at this point explode us into the altered reality of the shattered worlds of all the characters and the situation. Terror, disbelief, ghoulish comedy: they’re all there, and I think need to speak simultaneously. Instead, the music seems more to support the action on a moment-to moment basis. It’s one of those rare circumstances where I feel the text suggests more than the actual music delivers.

But this is not a condemnation, just an indication of the exceptional expectations the work engenders by its very high quality. In fact, this is one of the freshest, most ambitious new American operas I’ve heard in ages. Instead of taking up once again some cinematic or literary retread, it actually dares to use original material. And it also dares to take up historical events and musical tropes without succumbing to mere costume drama. The above criticism aside, I appreciate, admire, and enjoy Sawyer’s voice. And I hope this is only the first of Shoptaw’s librettos. As a first collaboration, the result is stunning.

Again, outstanding performances by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. And the enunciation of the singers is so clear that one can truly enjoy the piece without one’s head buried in the booklet (itself beautifully produced, by the way, with essays by the composer, librettist, and Klára Móricz). This comes with a very high recommendation to a wide audience.