Aaron Copland worried about the durability of “The Tender Land,” his opera about a traditional, humble, rural 1930s family suspicious of outsiders and their morals. But it seems uncannily relevant: contemporary America is still often touted as a place whose small-town heartland, inhabited by plain-spoken, wary and conservative folk, is framed by cities teeming with deviants and elitists.
Copland wrote “The Tender Land,” his only full-length opera, to provide a manageable vehicle for young singers and small companies. It received a lukewarm reception at its premiere at New York City Opera 1954 (after having been rejected for broadcast by NBC), and is now infrequently performed. But the Bronx Opera Company made a credible case for the work on Saturday at El Museo del Barrio’s intimate Heckscher Theater in East Harlem.
The outsiders in the opera are two worldly drifters, Martin and Top, who arrive seeking work on the Moss family farm. Laurie Moss, about to graduate from high school, falls in love with Martin and is torn between her roots and her desire to explore the world.
The Heckscher is an ideal space to stage the opera, which Copland said he intended to evoke a “warm and personal feeling.” Meganne George’s attractive, simple sets and costumes — a wooden farmhouse and floral dresses — reflect the Walker Evans Depression-era photographs that inspired Erik Johns, the librettist.
Royston Coppenger’s effective staging kept the simple plot moving. Elizabeth Hillebrand sang with an attractive soprano and convincingly portrayed Laurie as shy and na´ve, rebellious and finally confident, as she (somewhat implausibly) heads out alone into the world.
Megan Candio was excellent as Laurie’s bubbly 10-year-old sister, Beth, a mostly spoken role. Leslie Swanson was believable as the cynical Ma Moss, bewildered by her daughter and deeply suspicious of the drifters.
Daniel Keeling was a tough, old-fashioned and protective Grandpa Moss, although he had trouble projecting his wobbly lower range. Marvin Scott struggled vocally as Martin, although there was amusing chemistry between him and Peter Clark, who was a rascally, irrepressible Top.
Michael Spierman conducted a performance that was often lively and taut, although the singers were sometimes out of sync with the orchestra, and there were some hairy moments in Laurie’s graduation party scene.
The company used Murray Sidlin’s effective chamber version of Copland’s mostly diatonic score, which has an occasional dissonance to heighten dramatic effect. Copland aptly described this folksy, tonal work, redolent of “Appalachian Spring,” as “plain, with a colloquial flavor.”
The wistfully appealing score is indeed simple, but crucially, the opera’s themes seem timely.