Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

HOIBY: Summer and Smoke

spacer Viemeister, Farmer, Coolen; Strommer, Mellon; Chorus and Orchestra of Manhattan School of Music Opera Theatre, Osgood. Text and notes. Albany Records, Troy 1272/73

SummerSmokeCD

The Manhattan School of Music has provided a great service by reviving and recording Lee Hoiby's Summer and Smoke, a movingly apt adaptation of the play by Tennessee Williams. Created in 1971, it is an opera, above all, that captures the tortured refinement of Williams's heroine and shares something of her fragility. 

Like Williams's most famous heroine, Blanche DuBois, Summer and Smoke's Alma Winemiller is a creature of delicate sensibilities and powerful yearnings who is undone — though less cataclysmically than Blanche — by an encounter with the force of eros. "Alma is Spanish for 'soul,'" characters proclaim more than once, and if Alma stands for everything fine and immaterial, then John Buchanan, her love object and nemesis, is all libido — at least until the dramatic climax of this hourglass plot, which reverses the roles and sends her plunging downward as he ascends to respectability and redemption.

It is easy to imagine simplistic adaptations of Williams's heavy-handed theatrics, hairpin plot twists and shouting symbols. Instead, in pursuing the playwright's poetic vision, Hoiby bravely errs on the side of restraint, almost like the heroine herself. 

The listener may feel a mixture of admiration and frustration at the composer's Alma-like avoidance of the bold, even vulgar stance that many consider essential in the theater today. The score uses Puccinian tonality, tinged with chromatics and certain momentary seasoning from Bernstein and Mussorgsky, but its syntax is more reminiscent of Debussy, discreet, integrated and fluid. Fairly parsimonious themes — seemingly chosen for their adaptability rather than for their instant appeal — are explored, dissected, varied and combined in a lyrical, moody symphonic texture that rewards careful attention but rarely grabs you by the lapel. 

Significantly, the opera ends on the faintest diminuendo, but one that is truly memorable, leaving the bare bones of the bass accompaniment barely audible in the strings — almost an emblem of Hoiby's subtle art. Sometimes, though, an extended ensemble, such as the recapitulating scene crafted by the librettist to close Act I, feels anticlimactic. And an important statement taken straight from the play, such as John's "I'm more afraid of your soul than you are of my body," is left out to dry without enough melodic starch. 

There are exceptions to Hoiby's understatement, such as a use of melodious, robust incidental music — genre exercises that include waltzes, marches, Latino dances — providing effective, sometimes ironic counterpoint to the drama; the composer knows the skill of foregrounding parlando dialogue against a flowing instrumental melody, as Italian composers from Donizetti to Puccini do so often. Another effective technique is to leverage a brief thematic cell into a staggering dramatic statement, such as basing the "anatomy lesson" on John's elusive four-note signature motive, or constructing Alma's rich, wordless vocalise at Dr. Buchanan's deathbed starting from a rising minor-second fragment that is associated with her character. The challenging vocal lines even catch quite a bit of Williams's wit.

Lanford Wilson's libretto deftly compresses the play but also expands occasionally to create operatic opportunities such as the singing lesson, various ensembles and a more layered ending that brings back the children's voices from the prologue. A listener familiar with the play comes away convinced that Williams was prescient in singling out Hoiby as his chosen adapter, and that Hoiby's sound-world is stirringly apt for these characters and this drama.

The recording, taken from a 2010 student production directed by Dona D. Vaughn, is ably conducted by Steven Osgood, who is both detailed and propulsive in approach. A number of brief cuts from the printed score were presumably sanctioned by the composer, who attended this revival just a half-year before his death. Anna Viemeister as Alma and baritone Nikoli Strommer as John are brilliant in a generally fine cast. The only jarring elements are the occasional glitches by the orchestra brasses and the singers' overuse of crude, obtrusive southern accents. spacer

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10