A DISTANT LOVE
A Distant Love: Songs of
John and Abigail Adams
The deep love shared by John and Abigail Adams is well documented by the many letters the two wrote to each other over the course of their courtship and married life. Composer Gary S. Fagin and librettist Terry Quinn's new two-act opera based on this relationship, A Distant Love: Songs of John and Abigail Adams, charts the long separation the two endured, from the time John spent as an ambassador in Amsterdam through most of the Revolutionary War. The work — which features a cast of only two singers (John, a baritone, and Abigail, a soprano) — was given its Manhattan premiere by Chelsea Opera in the chancel of Christ and Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church on Friday, June 14.
The opera is organized in three sections — a prologue depicting John's departure from home; an act devoted to John's writing to Abigail while he is in Amsterdam (this act was originally commissioned in 2004 by the John Adams Institute and performed at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw by baritone Richard Lalli in 2005); and a second act depicting Abigail's life in Braintree, Massachusetts, while awaiting her husband's return. Interestingly, the first, earlier-commissioned act is the weaker of the two. The libretto contains few points of significant interest (it covers horseback riding, ice skating, homesickness) and the score meanders through the material without ever making much of an impact ...
Baritone Peter Kendall Clark gave an admirable portrayal of John Adams. Although his voice initially sounded a bit rough, it soon warmed up and remained clear and strong for the entirety of the act. In addition to solid vocalism and crisp diction, Clark brought an expressive face and requisite abandon to his performance; it must have been a challenge to pull off galloping around the stage while straddling a cane and singing "shaking on horseback" repeatedly, but he somehow managed it ...
Abigail's act addresses much more engaging issues — the horrors of war, women's place in society, scarcity of food and supplies during wartime, smallpox, slavery, etc. The music is also more clearly structured into "song" segments, interspersed with Abigail's candid spoken reflections about her relationship with John, which further draw the audience into her world.
As Abigail, soprano Victoria Tralongo gave a superb performance that made one forget almost entirely about the few vocal issues that cropped up along the way. The music occasionally demanded more than Tralongo could provide in the middle and lower registers of her voice, resulting in either a pressed, hollow sound in the middle or an excessively chesty quality at the bottom. When allowed to sing a lyric, legato line, however, she created some truly gorgeous sounds, her quick vibrato shimmering as her voice soared easily into the church. There were a number of poignant moments, yet Tralongo also made the most of Abigail's wry sense of humor, particularly with some amusingly frank comments on topics ranging from man's desire to rule as a tyrant over his wife, to the sublime ecstasy of eating chocolate. Tralongo's strong dramatic instincts allowed her to paint a convincing portrait of a woman dutifully fulfilling her responsibilities to her family and community, all the while subverting her own understandable frustrations in order to provide moral support to her husband.
In addition to the two singers, A Distant Love is scored for string quartet ... Conductor Jorge Parodi often cued the vocal entrances with sharp intakes of breath, thereby allowing the singers to avoid looking into the pit too often — a technique that worked fairly well in the intimate space.
Director Lynne Hayden-Findlay, a cofounder of Chelsea Opera with Leonarda Priore, made excellent use of the church's deep chancel: as the main action unfolded in the front area, the rear portion served as a second "room" in which the non-singing character would go about his/her daily business — sweeping the floor, reading letters, etc. The costumes and minimal set did a fine job of setting the time and location, while the atmospheric lighting clearly marked the passage of time and seasons.
The first act--John Adams in Amsterdam: a Song for Abigail--gave stellar baritone Peter Kendall Clark (barely recognizable without his beard) an opportunity to use his sizable round instrument to express the various emotions experienced by the statesman who would become the second president of the USA. He was not very enchanted with the French but grew increasingly delighted with the Dutch, having been sent there as ambassador and raiser of funds for the struggle for independence. He writes to his wife (my "dearest friend") and describes his ever-growing reputation in Holland as well as his longing for home and family. He warmly describes the Dutch as learned, artistic and hard-working with a penchant for skating and mushrooming. He sorely misses his family and expresses his longing for home and family as well as his fear of isolation from the prospect of being a man of importance on the world's stage. Ha!
The second act--Abigail in the Colonies: a Song for John--permitted soprano Victoria Tralongo to create a character any woman could identify with. She is a courageous woman, a feminist and an abolitionist who wants the same freedom for slaves as the colonists are demanding from Great Britain. But she is still a woman and yearns for "sentimental effusions of the heart" from her husband, enduring a decade of separation with love and fidelity. If there is one song in the work that best stands alone as a concert aria it would be "Loneliness". We wish to quote the moving first line: "If you should lie awake and call my name". There is also a slightly more lighthearted song, lighthearted yet serious in its description of the effect of war on the women left behind--scarcity of food and medicine, inflated prices, the presence of the enemy, illness and death--but above all, a need for PINS! The stalwart Mrs. Adams wants Mr. Adams to send her lots of pins that she can sell in the colony.
Terry Quinn was responsible for developing the libretto from the actual letters in the historical archive and Gary S. Fagin wrote the music. Our regular readers likely know how unimpressed we are by contemporary writing; so our praise for this score is doubly remarkable. The string quartet was an excellent choice for this lyrical and evocative music; string quartets were popular during the latter part of the 18th c. Mr. Fagin's music held our attention throughout; it had a martial flavor when war was discussed and a decidedly romantic flavor during the recitations of longing. It was always singable.
Guest conductor of the Chelsea Opera String Quartet was the renowned conductor Jorge Parodi; musicians were violinists Garry Ianco and Bruno Peña, violist Cait O'Brien and cellist Jameson Platte. Maestro Parodi's affection for the score was evident in his expressive conducting.
The work was given an effective staging and costuming by co-producer Lynne Hayden-Findlay; she wisely kept the singer (and letter writer) in the foreground with just enough movement to illustrate the text and the recipient of the letters in the background going about their daily routine. The two singers, clearly chosen for their splendid voices, were bewigged by Andrea Calabrese and appeared totally convincing. We especially loved watching Abigail performing her chores, embroidering and baking bread. The set by Leonarda Priore was simple but worked well--a writing desk, a table and chair, a coat rack, a quill pen and other similar accoutrements of 18th c. life.
The nine-year old Chelsea Opera, founded by Ms. Priore and Ms. Hayden-Findlay, has a lot of wonderful productions in store for next year but don't wait. Enjoy this splendid event TODAY!