Chelsea Opera’s production of “A Distant Love: Songs of John and Abigail Adams”

On May 31 I received an email from Chelsea Opera inviting me to attend one of their two performances of “A Distant Love: Songs of John and Abigail Adams,” a “chamber opera” for two singers and string quartet by Gary Fagin (music) and Terry Quinn (libretto), with the idea that I would “review” the performance for my blog.  I accepted the invitation and attended the second performance, which just concluded this afternoon, June 15. 

The venue was Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on West 69th Street, a relatively small, long rectangular sanctuary space that does not have quite the resonant echo of most church venues where music gets performed in New York.  Consequently, the sound was clear and focused, the singers were able to project over the string quartet, and most of the words were comprehensible without much strain.

Jorge Parodi conducted a quartet made up of Garry Ianco and Bruna Pena, violins, Cait O’Brien, viola, and Jameson Platte, cello.  Composer Fagin explained in a brief program note that he decided to set the music for string quartet in response to the development and establishment of the string quartet as a musical ensemble at around the time when the letters of John and Abigail Adams on which the libretto was based were written, although the music is not in the style of that time (Mozart and Haydn).  Peter Kendall Clark sang the part of John Adams, and Victoria Tralongo sang the part of Abigail Adams. 

The Continental Congress appointed John Adams to be part of the delegation of American diplomats that would spend the Revolutionary War years in Europe, seeking to negotiate alliances, loans, and treaties with various European powers.  After a frustrating period in Paris playing second fiddle to Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Adams was relieved to be assigned as minister to the Dutch court, and spent several years in Amsterdam.  During this long separation from his family, he and his wife, Abigail, who stayed home on the farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, raising their children, running the farm, and suffering the plight of civilians caught up in the military conflict with Great Britain, exchanged letters with some frequency, and through the foresightedness of John, the correspondence was saved and transmitted through their family to posterity, ultimately ending up in the Massachusetts Historical Society and being published during the 20th century.

Librettist Quinn has mined these letters to construct a libretto in three parts.  First, there is a Prologue, just to establish the predicate of John leaving for Europe, which I believe is mainly Quinn’s original work.  This brief segment is the only one in which the two protagonists engage in a dialogue of sorts.  The remainder of the first half, subtitled John Adams in Amsterdam: A Song for Abigail, was earlier composed as a stand-alone piece for baritone and string quartet, drawn from John’s letters to Abigail.  The second half, performed after an intermission, is subtitled Abigail in the Colonies: A Song for John.   John never sings during the second half, and Abigail’s singing in the first half is confined to the Prologue.

I think the creators of this piece have blundered in adopting this structure.  The result is a brief prologue (dialogue) followed by two extended monologues.  Instead of experience a dramatic interchange of correspondence between the geographically distant husband and wife, we are presented with first one side of the correspondence, then the other, sacrificing much potential drama.  Indeed, I found the first half to be rather monotonous and the second half to be exciting and dramatic.  It was like listening to two separate pieces.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to the very different nature of the texts.  John’s letters are prosaic, didactic, and whiney.  Abigail’s letters verge on the poetic and romantically yearning, and lend themselves more to song.  Not surprisingly, then, Fagin has written much more interesting music for Abigail than for John.  It is not clear to me how closely Quinn’s libretto follows the original letter texts, and how much he has massaged them to produce the sung text, but certainly he has not homogenized them into one style.  John and Abigail have distinctly different voices, and John’s voice in this libretto is just not as interesting or dramatic as Abigail’s voice.

Fagin’s music for John’s “song” is a through-composed half hour of unremitting lyricism that struck me as rather formless, even though the libretto has distinct demarcations in it.  (The libretto is available on Chelsea Opera’s website.)  It is conservatively tonal, with long lyrical lines, and without much variation of rhythm, tempo, texture or volume, thus becoming quite monotonous over the long span.  John is singing almost constantly, with occasional spoken text interspersed.

By contrast, Fagin’s music for Abigail is not really through-composed.  There is more spoken text, and the music naturally subdivides into set pieces, including one particularly gorgeous aria, “Loneliness,” that was so stunning that the audience broke into applause at its conclusion.  Whereas the first half tended to monotony, the second half never did, because there was such variety of musical styles, real self-contained songs, and also Abigail’s narration of events is so much more colorful and interesting than John’s. 

The piece lacks and really needs a postlude, bringing John and Abigail back together again upon his return from Europe.  Without it, John is superfluous for the second half.  He never sings.  The staging by Lynne Hayden-Findlay has him popping on and off stage during the second half, sometimes sitting and reading to himself the letters from Abigail, making facial expressions as if reacting to what she is writing, squirming at times at her outspoken political views (including an impassioned diatribe against slavery that is most dramatically set by Mr. Fagin).   One lacks a sense of completion and closure as the “Epilogue” of Abigail’s part just concludes with a “good night” expression from one of her letters.

Regardless of my criticisms about the conception of this piece, I have to say that the musicians all did a terrific job with the material they were given.  Peter Kendall Clark, saddled with the less distinguished vocal writing, nonetheless gave it his all and gamely acted out his mute show in the second half.  Victoria Tralongo was spectacularly good as Abigail, but then she was given much more interesting material.  She certainly made the most of it, and I would be eager to hear a recording of her work on this.  Maestro Parodi, labeled “guest conductor” in the program, kept things together and flowing smoothly.  The string quartet could have been rhythmically sharper at times, and intonation was sometimes a bit suspect, at least to my ear, but the performance was certainly adequate.  I came to feel, however, that Fagin had miscalculated by limiting himself to a string quartet.  The texture of the music in the first half contributed to my feeling of monotony, as lyrical quartet writing without much textural variation results in a lack of dramatic contrast.  The second half was distinctly better in this respect, with more variety of texture and rhythm.  But I think that a piano and perhaps one or two winds would be helpful, as well as a double bass.  And Mr. Fagin should really explore pizzicato!!!  Strings don’t always have to be bowed.

My suggestion:  I think they should reconceptualize this piece, integrating the letters from John and Abigail to provide the greater dramatic contrast of alternating voices.  Perhaps part of the problem is that the John half was written first as a stand-alone piece, then the Abigail part was written to stretch it out to a full-length chamber opera.  Instead of starting over, composer and librettist just added to what they already had.  I would start over, despite the extra work involved, because there is lots of good music here that is worth preserving, and I think despite the through-composed nature of the first part, ways could be found to rewrite it into segments that would intersperse with the second part.

The piece drew an enthusiastic audience response at the end, which I think was largely stimulated by the superior second half.  I hope the creators will consider this a work in progress and think carefully about how it could be dramatically and musically improved, perhaps along the lines I’m suggesting.

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