- Our American Cousin, opera in 3 acts
Eric Sawyer: Our American Cousinby Rose
Our American Cousin was the name of the play being performed at Ford's Theatre the night John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Librettist John Shoptaw examines the assassination from the perspective of the actors who were performing the play, and the middle part of the opera is essentially a musical setting of the play, with interpolations by Lincoln and other audience members. Booth, a celebrated actor, self-consciously saw himself as the protagonist in the drama of eliminating the tyrant who had defeated his beloved Confederacy, and in socializing with the play's actors before the performance, dropped numerous hints about his intended actions. The libretto mingles the startling, fascinating details of the assassination with surrealism, such as Lincoln's posthumous appearance to the play's leading lady. In spite of the inherent theatricality of the material, the libretto is curiously inert. By devoting the core of the opera to the silly, pun-laden play that has little interest in and of itself, the libretto relegates the assassination and the characters of Booth and Lincoln to the periphery. Eric Sawyer's pastel music is occasionally clever, but does little to lift the drama to the level of real tragedy. For the most part it's blandly lyrical, illustrative rather than illuminating, and at some points, such as the musical depictions of laughter (always a tricky device to pull off), just embarrassing. There is some attractive choral writing, but except for the closing chorus, it doesn't drive the drama. The opera's largest problem is the music's lack of dramatic shape; the assassination itself, for instance, passes by without generating any kind of musical response to indicate that something of significance has transpired. Gil Rose leads the Boston Modern Orchestra Project in a polished performance, but the vocal soloists are undistinguished and fail to generate interest in their characters. The sound is well balanced and clean.
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