> Opera and Oratorio
Silber; Moss. Texts. Broadway Records BR-CD 04516
ARLINGTON IS THE FIRST collaboration between composer Polly Pen and playwright and novelist Victor Lodato. Brought together by a commission from the Inner Voices series in New York City, Lodato and Pen based their work on Lodato’s play, Dear Sara Jane, which was inspired by a Life magazine photo from the 1940s showing a young war bride regarding the skull of a Japanese soldier that her husband had sent her as a souvenir from the Pacific theater.
Updated to the present, Lodato and Pen’s work affords a look at the ravages Of war as experienced by a soldier’s wife. Presented in 2012 as a twenty-minute scene, Arlington was later expanded into a six-part, hour-long piece that in 2014 received its full-length premiere, featuring soprano Alexandra Silber and pianist/tenor Ben Moss.
Pen’s music is steeped in the American musical-theater tradition. It’s tonal and accessible, incorporating elements of popular song, yet it also includes music that’s stylistically more complex. The piano music plays a key role in conveying the dramatic atmosphere, while remaining at the service of the vocal line. The work is through-composed with no real set pieces. The narration continually moves forward. The pianist is called upon to sing the minor roles of Sara Jane’s husband, Jerry, and her father, a career military man. Moss handles these duties with fine comportment and an appealingly light tenor.
The drama is in six vignettes, which follow Sara Jane’s gradual unfolding from a nervous young housewife, bracing herself for a tense luncheon with her mother, to increasingly raw, anxiety-ridden stages of grief that show the damage done to her and her loved ones by the United States’ current and past wars. We develop sympathy for Sara Jane’s mother as we learn about the brutal death of her son during the Vietnam War. We share Sara Jane’s lonely bewilderment as she describes being taken as a child to visit Arlington Cemetery’s monument to the unknown soldier. We get angry at the wooden resolve of her pontificating father. And we share Sara Jane’s horror as we hear about how her Jerry has knowingly killed women and children in the Middle East. This last becomes even more complicated when we learn that Sara Jane is expecting Jerry’s baby and wonders both what kind of life the child will have and how/whether she will still be able to love Jerry when he comes home.
Pen and Lodato could not have found a finer Sara Jane than Alexandra Silber. Her commitment is absolute. She covers a range of emotion, from annoying nervousness at the beginning through various stages of awakening to the weight of her circumstances, including denial, drunkenness, desperation, loneliness, compassion and concerns about her own future. Silber’s performance allows Arlington to achieve the overwhelming emotional power and complexity that are inherent in the work. Would that multitudes would listen to it; I, for one, am grateful to have come to know it. —Arlo McKinnon