CINCINNATI — The tumultuous adaptation of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” was performed at the Metropolitan Opera two months ago, but it still rings in my ears.
Almost literally: it is a noisy and chaotic score, bringing together drums of percussion and electronic effects enveloping the audience, complex polyrhythms and virtuoso extended techniques. In all these qualities, it represents a wide range of contemporary operas (some good, some bad) defined as overwhelming. They are hurricanes of shock and awe, anarchic and confusing.
The music of Gregory Spears – whose sensitive “Castor and Patience” was commissioned by the Cincinnati Opera and premiered here Thursday night – is the opposite.
Warm, even, restrained, solidly tonal, the orchestras in his works tend to serenely repeat small cells of material, without strange instruments or strange uses of conventional instruments.
Spears’ style is so self-effacing that the dark hum at the start of this new piece emerges unpaused from the tuning of the whole, as if by accident. The overall effect is that of a smoothly unfurling carpet – reminiscent of Philip Glass in its calm but heartbreaking harmonic progressions – at the top of which the vocals soar.
And fly away, and fly away. The agonies and pleasures of “Beaver and Patience,” which runs through July 30 at the School for Creative and Performing Arts’ Corbett Theater, resemble those of a less densely orchestrated Puccini. As in “Tosca”, “La Bohème” or “Madama Butterfly”, effusive vocal lines without shame, even without shame, bring us poignantly closer to characters in heartbreaking situations: here, a black family torn apart by a disagreement over the opportunity to sell part of a valuable piece of land.
Precious, because bought with a hard-earned freedom. The action takes place on an unnamed island off the coast of the southern United States that was settled by former slaves after the Civil War. Among their descendants, Castor left and moved north with his parents; her cousin, Patience, stayed with hers.
Decades later, both are adults with children of their own. It’s 2008 and Castor – like so many people in the years leading up to the Great Recession – has borrowed far beyond his means. The only way he sees financial ruin is to return to the island and sell some of his inherited stake, likely to a white buyer wanting to build beachfront condos; it is a result that tradition-conscious Patience cannot bear.
It’s a battle between old and new, past and future, going and staying, watched over by the ghosts of ancestors and the lasting reverberations of their oppression. (“To live is to remember,” as one character sings.) This narrative ground is familiar — gentrification versus preservation, with echoes of “A Raisin in the Sun” — and it could have just been overworked.
But Tracy K. Smith, the former Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, produced a libretto as understated as Spears’ score. An original story rather than one of the transformations of existing material that currently clogs the world of opera, its text is largely in prose, and never in purple; modest arias naturally arise from the dialogue. Ignited by painful music – the 36-piece orchestra is conducted with calm confidence by Kazem Abdullah – the result is passionate, but also clear, focused and humble.
Spears’ two most important earlier operas were both performed. “Paul’s Case” (2013), based on a story by Willa Cather about a restless, dandy young man, had the aptly stylized formality of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” This neoclassical (even neo-medieval) feel extended to the more naturalistic “Fellow Travellers” (2016), amid McCarthy-era anti-gay witch hunts. But the lyricism that was tense, almost unbearably heightened in “Paul’s Case” felt a bit repetitive and listless on the larger canvas that followed.
Six years in the making — and two years after the pandemic forced the cancellation of its planned premiere, in honor of the Cincinnati Opera’s centennial — “Castor and Patience” is more intense yet more relaxed than one or the other. “Paul’s Case” was 80 minutes long, “Fellow Travelers” an hour and 50. The new opera is more than half an hour late, but it feels less prolonged than without haste or bustle. You get to know the characters and sit with them.
If these figures are so lively, it is also thanks to a committed cast, led by the baritone Reginald Smith Jr., an anguished Castor, and the soprano Talise Trevigne, delicate but powerful like the implacable Patience.
Singing with gentle power, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano brought humanity and nuance to Castor’s wife, Celeste, who begins the opera pushing it to sell but finds herself in as anguished ambivalence as anyone. Raven McMillon and, above all, Frederick Ballentine, bristled — convincing teenagers — as their daughter and son, Ruthie and Judah. Patience’s children, West (Benjamin Taylor) and Wilhelmina (Victoria Okafor), were gentle yet moving guides to the satisfactions of island and family life.
Their outpourings are so fervent, the melodies so sweet, that one can find oneself moved to tears by the more or less random lines – a feat both impressive and, at times, exaggerated, especially in the first act. But from the second act, with the tension rising inexorably, resistance to such a frank, tender and frank work seems futile. If it’s emotionally manipulative – in the distinguished tradition of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Carlisle Floyd – it is expertly so.
Vita Tzykun’s set stretches the facade of a house across the stage, but leaves the background half-ragged and clipped, revealing foundation beams and marshy grasses. It’s a dreamlike underworld in which characters from the 1860s and 1960s mingle with the 21st century. Kevin Newbury’s production uses furniture and some cabin suggestions to evoke a range of locations on the island. If it’s not entirely evocative – with projections that tend to be cloudy – it’s at least effective and simple.
Just like the plot mechanics. The conflicts here are as solidly old-fashioned as in an Arthur Miller play – but, as in Miller’s work, they still make your stomach sink. Probably unlike the version of this booklet he would have written, however, the real tragedy does not strike in Spears and Smith’s account. Everyone is alive at the end.
And the secret that’s revealed near this point isn’t quite a barn burner. But it does offer the real explanation for why Castor’s parents went north – a telling reminder that migrations are not just abstract sociological phenomena, but also happen family by family, for individual reasons.
There is no clear resolution to the plot. In the last scene, we see Castor, Celeste, and Ruthie on the ferry back to the mainland. (Judah has decided to stay.) The implication seems to be that they’ll be back on the island for good before too long, but we can’t be sure. In a final aria — an oasis of expressive and elegant Smith’s poetry, after so much explanatory prose — Patience dismisses the possibility of choosing between the past or the future. We are always in between.
For all the ambiguous peace this ending offers, there is a bitter undercurrent: in America, especially black America, ownership is fundamentally tenuous. You can never run fast enough or far enough to escape forces bent on dispossessing you, or worse: “Sometimes I feel like something is trying to erase me,” Castor sings. If he finally returns to the Isle of Patience, it will be a return to his roots, but also an admission of defeat – for a man and a country.
“What more must I give,” the opera asks in its last silent moments, “must I give before I am free?”
Beaver and Patience
Through July 30 at the Corbett Theater of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Cincinnati; cincinnationopera.org.