OF MICE AND MEN
An opera in three acts by Carlisle Floyd
Libretto by the composer, based on the novella by John Steinbeck
Australian premiere performance on Saturday, 23rd July 2011 in the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.
Conductor Andrea Molino
Director Bruce Beresford
Set Designer John Stoddart
Costumes John Stoddart
Lighting Nigel Levings
George Barry Ryan
Lennie Anthony Dean Giffey
Curley Bradley Daley
Candy Jud Arthur
Curley’s wife Jacqueline Mabardi
Slim Andrew Jones
Carlson David Corcoran
Ballad Singer John Longmuir
Carlisle Floyd’s 1970 opera is based an iconic work of American literature, the novella “Of Mice and Men” by the Nobel Prize winning author, John Steinbeck. Unlike many modern and lesser known operas, the story is probably better known to the Public from either the book or one of the three films that have been made of the story.
Set on a ranch near Soledad in California during the Great Depression, the book and the opera recount the tragic story of a pair on itinerant hobos, George Milton, and Lennie Small. Lennie, is a child-like man of large stature and immense strength, but limited mental abilities; and George is his well meaning friend, carer and protector. They move from ranch to ranch as itinerant field workers. George hopes to raise a stake so the pair can buy a small property where George can feel independent, and Lennie (who loves petting soft things) can have some soft rabbits he can pet and stroke. They are fleeing from their previous employment after Lennie’s love of stroking soft things, resulted in an accusation of attempted rape after touching a young woman’s dress. On the new farm, they are confronted by the boss of the farm, Curly, a short statured, aggressive ex-boxer who dislikes larger men and is extremely jealous of his wife. His wife has pretentions of working in theatre and is stifled and lonely on the ranch due to Curly’s extreme jealousy. In a pivotal moment she attempts to befriend Lennie and offers to let him stroke her hair. She becomes terrified when he will not stop, screams and Lennie accidentally breaks her neck in a struggle to stop her screaming and getting him into trouble with George. Knowing the final outcome for Lennie, George compassionately retells Lennie’s beloved story of the bright future together that they will never share. He then shoots Lennie in the back of the head, so that his friend’s inevitable death is painless and happy.
The character of Lennie is based on a real person that Steinbeck worked with for several months, while working as a farm hand in the same County of California where the book and opera are set during the 1930′s. Rather than killing a girl, he killed a ranch foreman for firing his friend, sticking a pitch fork through his stomach repeatedly. Unlike the book and opera, the real life ‘Lennie’ was committed to an insane asylum in California. The title of the book and opera comes from a quotation from the Robert Burns poem, ”To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”, the penultimate stanza of which reads:
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid plans of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy.
Floyd’s opera masterfully explores the themes of isolation, despair, loneliness, loss of power, man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and dreams, present in Steinbeck’s original work. These themes which resonated so strongly in America of the Great Depression (and also today with the global financial crisis) remain universal. Floyd has been provided with masterly collaborators on this occasion with director, Bruce Beresford (the Academy Award winning film director), and designers John Stoddart (whose stunning work I have admired for years) and Nigel Levings. They have created a visual feast for the eye and an eloquent, dramatic and ultimately shattering realisation of the opera. It will come as no surprise that with Beresford’s film background, art work of scenes of American rural life in the area morph covering the front of the stage during musical interludes during scene changes. Even film is used to portray the chase for Lennie through the woods after he has killed Curley’s wife.
As the opera begins, the last two lines of the above stanza are projected onto a translucent scrim covering the front of the stage. On curtain rise we are presented with the stage framed by distant walls of barns with a barley crop rising high in the distance at the back of the stage. The clouds in the sky are ominously dark and remain so during the performance. Enter George and Lennie. Barry Ryan portraying George, sings the role of his life. He is extremely convincing as Lennie’s carer, exhibiting both the kindness and frustration he feels for him. Vocally, his voice is the best it has sounded for years and has finally settled to a true and resonant sounding baritone after returning to his original voice type after years as a tenor. Guest and Internationally renowned tenor, American Anthony Dean Giffey, a veteran of 8 productions of this opera, is Lennie. His portrayal is extremely well studied and highly believable as the tragic, mentally retarded Lennie. In a radiant performance, with repeated hand fumbling, looks of amazement, child-like smiles and fearful looks, he paints a truthful and sympathetic portrait of Lennie. His large voice uses a miriad of colours to express his feelings. Often resorting to half voice and crooning to vocally colour the text, and in keeping with Lennie’s child-like character. Later in the opera at the dramatic climaxes with the death of Curly’s wife, and later in the final scene, his top notes seemed to lack a little of the expected power and colour. Despite this quibble it was a masterly and shattering performance. Appearing for the first time with Opera Australia, Brad Daley was spot on as the pugnacious brat Curley, the manager of the farm. His tenor voice was thrilling with an even projected tone and a ringing, clarion top. This auspicious debut should see him in more and larger dramatic roles hopefully in the future.
In the second scene we meet the rest of the farm hands. Andrew Jones as Slim, provided yet again, a finely wrought and vividly sung character. Jud Arthur a tall well built man with chiselled features, looked a little ill at ease playing the well past retirement, aged farm hand Candy. Vocally he was superb. John Longmuir provided a beautifully sung cameo as the Ballad Singer and David Corcoran was casting from strength in the smaller role of Carlson. The small chorus of farm hands were directed with quite individual characters, and were musically outstanding. Vocally, less impressive in a vocally demanding role, was Jacqueline Marbadi as Curly’s Wife. Although looking the part to a tee, and acting a highly dramatic role with gusto, her vocal tone at times was unattractive with some shrillness initially, and possessed a very wide vibrato.
In the final act, the accidental killing of Curly’s wife by Lennie is very believably staged. An orchestral interlude between the two scenes was accompanied by a film projected onto the act cloth of Lennie fleeing and being chased through the woods by both George and a lynch mob. This was highly effective and much better than trying to represent the chase on stage. In the final tragic and heart rending scene, George catches up to Lennie at the appointed meeting place, recounts the shared dream of their small farm one last time to Lennie, and while Lennie is comforted listening, he kills him – sparing him a more shocking fate and further pain.
Floyd is one of the towering greats of modern American opera. His music is unashamedly American and tuneful. Rejecting serial and atonal music early in his career, his music gives a nod to (while never imitating) verismo opera, Copland, Korngold, Barber and even modern musical theatre – providing his unique musical style. OF MICE AND MEN is dramatically cohesive with a spartan libretto, and a tonal score with rich sonorities that particularly exploit bass strings and brass. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was responsive to the demands of Italian conductor and composer, Andrea Molino, providing a dramatic and rich accompaniment. At curtain call, the production received well earned bravi, and a standing ovation.
Australia was honoured by the presence of the composer and librettist, Carlisle Floyd for the opening performance.
OF MICE AND MEN is a very welcome addition to the repertoire, in a truly outstanding production by Opera Australia – DON”T MISS IT!