Opera Omaha; International Contemporary Ensemble/Christopher Rountree
Pentatone PTC 5186 754 79:48 mins
For some, the 1800s push of white settlers across America embodied a wholesome movement towards a new and better life. But for others it had dark ramifications – not least for many of the settlers themselves, for whom the reality of the American Dream was a bleak, desperate struggle to survive. Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek have based their third chamber opera on Karen Russell’s short story, Proving Up. It relates the dreadful impact of the 1862 Homestead Act on a fictional Nebraskan family who sacrifice all for a glass window; the most bizarre of an apparently arbitrary set of requirements determining a settler’s eligibility to receive 160 acres of land.
It’s a harrowing parable-cum-horror story in which toxic masculinity and retributive justice underpin the betrayal of futile hopes: a drunken Pa decrees that the window he has stolen from a neighbour be shared with others also hoping to ‘prove up’. Watched by dead sisters only he can see, his son Miles sets off with the window but is caught by the Sodbuster, a terrifying zombie-like figure of death. The overlapping of the corporeal and phantasmagorical is reflected in a busy, brilliantly impetuous-feeling score that’s haunted – or taunted – by a kind of neo-Baroque hoedown. Dry, jangling instrumental textures are cleverly off-set by long, mellifluous singing lines. These risk becoming unrelentingly declamatory at times, but the passion of the full-bodied Omaha Opera cast and International Contemporary Ensemble is laudable under conductor Christopher Rountree.