Review of The Long Ride Home

by opera critic and writer, Joseph Newsome

Throughout the history of opera, though there have been remarkable instances of a particular composer assimilating a foreign culture into his own idiom to produce a masterpiece (Carmen, for instance, or Falstaff), perhaps the greatest achievements of any era have been those unions of genius with its own circumstances, of a voice with its own people.  Orpheus and Ulysses impress and even compel us in their epoch trials, but our hearts are touched most when a stoic philosopher goes to his death, a saucy nursemaid sings a lullaby of unlikely beauty, and a deposed empress says farewell to the streets that bore her fathers. In Poppea, Monteverdi leaves off his cavorting with celestial things and gives his audience what he knew, Italians being Italians, falling in and out of love, conniving, drinking, laughing, lying, dying, and above all breathing that same air upon which Monteverdi himself drew for both sustenance and identity. This intellectual ‘homecoming’ is among the greatest accomplishments of art in that it turns the microscope of artistic scrutiny upon the artist’s own essence. Sometimes, as in Peter Grimes, the results are catastrophic: in other instances, such as Porgy and Bess, the artist lays bare marvelous things that are not obvious to the casual observer. Whatever the outcome, the harrowing process is a testament to the boldness of the artist and his confidence in the profundity, however obscure, of his own cultural existence.

While it is perhaps not surprising that the young Australian composer Thomas Rimes turned in his first operatic work, The Long Ride Home, premiered in New York in 2006, to a subject from his native land, it is significant that his subject is an ordinary farming family of his own creation rather than an indigenous hero or source of national pride. With this subject, Mr. Rimes will inevitably earn comparisons with Copland’s Tender Land, an American artist’s examination of a thoroughly commonplace American rural family.  One key way in which Rimes, who wrote both music and libretto, succeeds as well as Copland is in his uncanny depictions of both why these vivid people want to escape from the community in which they find themselves and why they are likewise desperate to remain there. Just as in Copland’s work, there is an omnipresent sense of the duality of the microcosmic family unit and the broader, macrocosmic community.  Rimes frames his work with broadcast announcements over the local radio station, revealing that within their setting his characters are people everyone knows.  This is a sense of connection that proves both comforting and constricting to his characters, and there is also a sense that this universal effect of ‘everyone knowing everyone’ within the community is greater – or at least more meaningful on an intellectual level – than interpersonal knowledge and understanding within the family unit.  Most of the truly important questions in the family Rimes gives us remain unanswered.  Ultimately, there is the sense that the broader community likely knows the answers to these questions that the people of this family cannot answer among themselves.

Musically, Rimes has created a swirling, magically beautiful score that wears its modernity proudly but without sacrificing structure and tonal allure.  In fact, sadly few contemporary scores offer the melodic wealth of The Long Ride Home, in which the harvest of gorgeous tunes is bountiful indeed.  One of Rimes’ particular accomplishments in this score is the manner in which he uses melody to place his characters on an even playing field, so to speak: as in Verdi’s Falstaff, where ill intent is rarely (if ever) true evil, melody mitigates questions of good and bad by being equally distributed among the characters.  The prevailing feeling is that, rather than any one character being distinctly called out as a protagonist or antagonist, all the people we meet in the course of the opera are playing parts in a subtly ritualized drama.  The daughter who left the community to pursue ‘bigger’ ideals is there because she must be there, just as is the sibling who stayed behind – not altogether of her own will.  There is the aged and ailing father, both doting and stern, and the eager grandchild, both painfully aware and blissfully innocent.  What prevents this from becoming a Steinbeck-like cliché transported to Oz is Rimes’ consistent mastery at giving these people music to sing that ennobles without artificially aggrandizing them; common men rather than the Common Man.  Rimes draws upon a wide spectrum of rhythms and harmonic patterns (which are sure to only grow more impressive when the work receives its first performances with full orchestration) that underline the basic emotional themes of the work – the needs to have and to break with community – without risking tedium.  Deserving special mention are the wonderful aria for Frank, the patriarch of the Douglas family, in the first act and the exquisite duet for his daughters Catherine and Rebecca with which the second act begins.  In the former, in which Frank questions the course of his life and laments the illness that has reduced his usefulness to his family, Rimes reminds us of the impassioned but invariably tuneful music Verdi gave to his great baritone roles.  The latter, with its perennially effective intervals for the sisters reminiscing of happy times in childhood, conjures the serenity and easy beauty of ‘Mira, o Norma.’  Throughout, Rimes displays a generally imperturbable affinity for natural writing for voices, not least in the lines for Rebecca’s son Rob, intended for a treble soloist.

None of this is to say that The Long Ride Home is wholly without shortcomings.  The libretto is a commendable effort, but there are occasional moments when the goal of maintaining a colloquial vein produces lines that undermine the intended eloquence of the simple but meaningful dialogue.  Likewise, there are some word settings that create uncomfortable moments for the voices, particularly when their vocal lines take them into their upper registers on inhospitable vowels.  There are also some phrases that build promisingly but finally fail to develop as the momentum suggests.  Similarly, there are climaxes in the music – often brilliantly pulse-quickening – that do not coalesce with the text.  This is perhaps more troubling when the text is sung in one’s own native language, but it can be disconcerting when the voices are being called upon to produce their ‘money notes’ in the upper register whilst singing text that expresses less exalted sentiments.  Admittedly, this matters little when the music is as beautiful as it is throughout this opera.

What lingers in the memory at the end of this opera is the way in which its young composer tells a story that is not uncommon in a way that is fresh and – very rarely among contemporary scores – dares to impress with its treasures of beautiful melody and tested theatrical formulae, embracing rather than rejecting the past and using the examples of genius turned inward, from Monteverdi to Tippett, to forge an individual and powerful voice.  It is a notable debut that leaves one eager to hear the next step on its composer’s operatic journey.

Joseph A. Newsome

October 2007

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