Ryan Center artists shine brightly in Floyd’s dark “Of Mice and Men”

Thu Jul 28, 2016 at 3:08 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Emmett O'Hanlon (left) and Jesse Donner as George and Lennie in Act I of Carlisle Floyd's "Of Mice and Men," presented Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera
Emmett O’Hanlon (left) and Jesse Donner as George and Lennie in Act I of Carlisle Floyd’s “Of Mice and Men,” presented Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

It was the belated Chicago premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in 1993 in which Renée Fleming made her Lyric Opera debut. The same staging was revived a decade later with Sondra Radvanovsky taking on the role of the victimized backwoods heroine (her Lyric debut as well).

Floyd is still active at 90, and his new opera Prince of Players was unveiled in Houston earlier this year. Sadly, no work of this leading American composer has been heard at the Civic Opera House since that last Susannah over a decade ago.

Some recompense was supplied Wednesday night at the Grant Park Music Festival when members of Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center performed Act 1 of Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Susannah remains Floyd’s most-performed opera, an intimate work beloved by college music departments. Yet Of Mice and Men, written in 1970, is likely his finest opera, a sensitive, powerful adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella about the ill-fated Depression-era friends, George and Lennie.

Floyd’s rustic, unsentimental lyricism is ideally suited to the tragic tale of the retarded man-child Lennie and his exasperated protector George, whose dream of a safe home away from danger leads to tragedy.

Of Mice and Men remains among the most accomplished of American operas, a work that invariably has a profound emotional effect on audiences, as was the case at Sarasota Opera’s shattering production in 2013.

So credible vocally and dramatically were the two lead singers Wednesday night that one walked out of Millennium Park intensely moved by the drama and disappointed not to hear the opera’s remaining two Acts.

As Lennie and George, Jesse Donner and Emmett O’Hanlon, respectively, inhabited their roles completely. So strong and lived-in was their acting, singing and chemistry that the concert performance had the fizz and intensity of a staged production.

The tall, husky Donner proved ideally cast as Lennie, whose brute strength and fondness for touching soft things leads to tragedy. Amplification always means an asterisk next to any comment on voices, but Donner’s tenor sounded imposing and he was clearly able to handle the role’s top notes without strain.

As George, Emmett O’Hanlon was simply terrific. He brought understated credibility to the role of Lennie’s long-suffering friend and displayed a dark, clarion baritone in his aria singing of the house that the men dream of having some day.

The second scene of Act I introduces the other characters in the hardscrabble ranch house where George and Lennie find jobs, and ends with the shooting of the old dog owned by one of the men, which foreshadows the opera’s final scene.

Some doubling of roles was necessary, which was handled adroitly by the talented Ryan Center singers even if it presented moments of dramatic confusion visually.

Alec Carlson proved a wonderfully versatile presence. The tenor fully conveyed the nasty nature of Curley, the dyspeptic owner of the ranch, yet he also did an effective 180 with the sweet mellow tone showed as the laid-back Ballad Singer.

In her bright red dress, Diana Newman put across the flirtatious essence of Curley’s Wife, although her words were fitfully indecipherable. Bradley Smoak brought a warm, rounded bass-baritone to Candy, the old hand whose dog is executed. Takaoki Onishi filled out the cast admirably, singing the roles of the remaining ranch hands, Slim and Carlson.

Edwin Outwater conducted and paced the opera well, effectively conveying the lean, tough lyricism of Floyd’s music.

One hopes that Lyric is nimble enough to take advantage of this opportunity and book some small theater in town where these excellent Ryan Center artists could present a staged Of Mice and Men sometime next season, if only for one night. Donner and O’Hanlon were really that good and doing so would help to rectify the company’s neglect of Floyd’s operas over the years.

The first half was devoted to recent works by the gifted Nico Muhly, representing a younger generation of American composer. Muhly’s first opera Two Boys enjoyed success at its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2013. He is currently writing Marnie, an opera based on the 1964 Alfred Hitchcock film, which will debut at the Met in 2019.

Muhly’s compositional flair was evident in his Mixed Messages, which led off the evening. This orchestral work mixes driving Minimalist riffs, seesawing high string harmonics and attractive lyricism, notably in a soaring theme for cellos. It’s engaging and well crafted but feels at least five minutes too long. Outwater and the orchestra provided worthy advocacy though the pavilion amplification sounded decidedly on the loud side here and throughout the evening.

Muhly’s music was heard to better advantage with his Two Songs for soprano, composed in 2008 and newly orchestrated for these performances.

The songs are set to poems by James Merrill (“Last Words”) and Stephen Spender (“Empty House”). Muhly plumbs a vein of deep melancholy in these death-haunted settings, which aligned with the dark homespun lyricism of Floyd’s opera.

Annie Rosen is a mezzo but the Ryan Opera Center member handled the high stretches of these settings securely and with the clearest diction heard all evening. Rosen brought out the emotion in the pensive, melismatic lines of “Last Words” and the brooding tragic expression in “Empty House” (about a child’s death).

Muhly’s new orchestrations are effective if a bit heavily scored, and likely would have benefited from a lighter touch and more skillful balancing from the podium.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Ryan Center artists shine brightly in Floyd’s dark “Of Mice and Men””

  1. Posted Jul 30, 2016 at 9:36 am by Sue Brose

    I have been privileged to see Emmett O’Hanlon both as a member of Celtic Thunder and several individual concerts. His talent is incredible and I am so glad that Chicago is getting to enjoy it! Even better is the fact that Emmett is one of the warmest, funniest and nicest person you could wish to meet! Congratulations to the Lyric on a wonderful choice.

  2. Posted Jul 30, 2016 at 1:23 pm by Ashley Hamilton

    I am so Verry proud of Emmett O Hanlon he has worked so Hard to get to get where he is I Love his music his personality his smile etc I know him personally and I am so Honored to know him I have seen him with Celtic Thunder and I hope that he comes back one day and I have been on two Cruises with him also with Celtic Thunder I am so Thankful for him and for what he has done for me and his other fans keep up the Good work Emmett I will always support you in everything you do!!
    Love Ashley Hamilton

  3. Posted Jul 30, 2016 at 4:42 pm by Joyce Cunanan

    Bravo!, Emmett. Sounds like you’re on your way. You are as stated. Congratulations! :-)

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