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Where Angels Fear to Tread

By Joe McLellan

March 7, 1999

I don’t know the name of the key character in Where Angels Fear To Tread, a new opera that I saw and enjoyed immensely last week in its world premiere production at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. This character is not named in the printed program, utters not a single sound and is seen only fleetingly and not very clearly, but without him there would be no story to tell, no tragicomic theme to animate the ingenious libretto by Roger Brunyate and the brilliantly expressive music of Mark Lanz Weiser.

When a novel is translated into an opera, there is inevitably a loss in subtlety and complexity, compensated by a gain in power. In Where Angels Fear To Tread, the loss is minimal, the gain enormous. The words have to be trimmed and sometimes simplified for musical purposes, but Brunyate sticks close to the novel and Weiser’s music gives the words color and vitality, takes the story off the printed page and deepens it.

The central character and thematic linchpin in Where Angels Fear To Tread, both the opera by Weiser and Brunyate and the first novel of E.M. Forster on which it is based, is an infant: the son of a rebellious English widow, Lilia Herriton and her second husband, the young, handsome, charming Italian ne’er-do-well Gino Carella. As the opera opens, the year is 1906; Lilia has moved to Italy and announced her intention to marry Gino, against the vigorous, anguished objections of her wealthy Herriton in-laws who consider such a remarriage an affront to the family name. Forster sums up their attitude in one pithy quote that establishes the theme of the novel and the opera: “He’s a bounder, but he’s not an English bounder.”

After Lilia dies in childbirth early in Act I, the basic narrative question emerges: Will her child and Gino’s be raised as an Englishman or an Italian? This is a rich resource for a comedy of manners based on conflicts and contrasts between English and Italian culture. Both sides of the conflict provide ammunition for Forster’s wit, but his personal preference is clearly for the freedom, warmth and spontaneity of Italy against the cold, empty pride and chauvinism of the British ruling class. These qualities are embodied primarily in Lilia’s wishy-washy brother-in-law Philip Herriton and his rabidly xenophobic sister Harriet, who firmly believes that God is an Englishman and Italy is not a Christian country.

Gino watches Caroline bathe his baby
Arturo Chacón and Anne Jennifer Nash

Lilia’s friend Caroline Abbot is brought in by the Herriton as an intermediary, to persuade Gino (if necessary, with a bribe) to give up the child. She tries, but gives up the effort when she notices a reality central to Forster’s theme: Gino loves the baby and the Herritons do not. When she reports back to the Herritons, they prepare to go back to England. But Harriet will not be deprived of her trophy; as the Herritons’ carriage prepares for departure, she appears with a mysterious bundle that turns out to be the baby — kidnapped. They gallop off into the stormy night and into a sudden twist of fate that turns Forster’s comedy of manners abruptly into a tragedy, all the more effective because it happens so abruptly and contrasts so sharply with what has gone before.

There is much more that cannot be detailed in a plot summary — for example, a three-dimensional quality in the characters, even in small supporting roles, and a constant examination of the differences between English and Italian views of life. Much of this is crystallized in a minor episode: a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor attended by the English visitors in a small, provincial Italian opera house (fragments of the Sextet and Mad Scene are heard, sung offstage), gives an opportunity to contrast the cold, critical attitude of the English members of the audience (who try to ape music critics) with the warm enthusiasm of the Italians (who approach the experience as lovers).

After the performace of Lucia
Jae Eun Shin as the Primadonna

Roger Brunyate, who has been the artistic director of the Peabody Opera Theatre since 1980, was the stage director of this world premiere production as well as the author of the libretto — his 21st! He is a richly experienced man of the theatre and his contribution to this opera’s enormous stageworthiness is incalculable. But the primary credit for an opera’s success goes to the composer. Mark Lanz Weiser, a recent graduate of Peabody with degrees in piano and composition, is 30 years old, on the threshold of what promises to be a spectacular career, a seasoned, resourceful composer, eclectic in style but essentially and splendidly conservative. He has at his fingertips all the resources developed by opera composers through four centuries of history, and he has a clear-eyed view of how these resources can be used to deepen characterization, heighten suspense and (aided by his mastery of orchestration) provide wordless commentary on the unfolding stage action. His basic idiom is close to the “continuous melody” developed by Wagner, but it can rise, at moments of heightened emotion, into forms approaching the traditional aria.

Conductor Robert Sirota
The first production of Where Angels Fear To Tread, was fully professional, although the two alternating casts and the excellent orchestra (sensitively conducted by Robert Sirota) were made up of Peabody students. Sets, makeup, costumes, etc., were entrusted to professionals and the resulting presentation was polished down to the finest details. The production, including its cast, could be taken over by any professional American company without changes.

It has been the fate of too many American operas to have a fine premiere production and never be brought back for a deuxieme. This should not be allowed to happen to Where Angels Fear To Tread. I have been fantasizing a festival of operas based on English novels, where this one would be seen and heard in company with Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers. I do not think Where Angels Fear To Tread would suffer unduly by comparison.

The article above was copied from Joseph McLellan’s website, “McLellan on Music,”. Unfortunately, it seems to be no longer available on his server.

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