Thomas: Desire Under the Elms

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Thomas
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Desire Under the Elms
PERFORMER: Jerry Hadley, James Morris, Victoria Livengood, Mel Ulrich, Jeffrey Lentz, Darth Meadows; LSO/George Manahan
CATALOGUE NO: 8.669001-02
American opera may be getting harder to define, but this work, written during the Seventies, feels like the real thing. It certainly taps into one of America’s most distinctive operatic strains, and perhaps the most successful one: billed as a ‘folk opera’, Desire Under the Elms harks back to works like Floyd’s Susannah (and even, by extension, Porgy and Bess). Having long straddled the classical-popular divide, the composer Edward Thomas (b1924) seems to have been ideally equipped to create a lyrical yet tense piece of music theatre, and in librettist Joe Masteroff (of Cabaret fame) he found a figure with equally firm instincts. Though you might rightly think that Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy is complete without music, the score does create an atmosphere appropriate to the bleak New England setting, in which a tale of lust and jealousy is played out with consequences as shattering as in any Greek myth.

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This lively sounding recording was made under the baton of George Manahan, a persuasive champion of American music, who conducts with feeling for the idiom and instinct for dramatic pace. Jerry Hadley may not have quite the tenor voice he once boasted and sounds taxed at the extreme top, but his slight tendency to croon matches both the idiom and the character of Eben, youngest son of Cabot (the authoritative James Morris) who becomes the lover of his father’s new young wife, Abbie (a vivid performance by Victoria Livengood). Mel Ulrich and Jeffrey Lentz are strong as the half-brothers who leave in search of an easier life in California. John Allison