A Tale of Sex and Disdain In Wharton's Berkshires 

By Anthony Tommasini 

(from the New York Times, 9/2/99)

Stephen Paulus, just turned 50 and one of the few American composers of this century to make a living writing operas, first thought of Edith Wharton's 1917 novella ''Summer'' as a potential subject in 1980. But even with his success and clout in the opera field, Mr. Paulus did not get a company interested until the mid-90's, when he began discussions with Joel Revzen, the artistic director of the Berkshire Opera Company here. A commission came in 1997, and the world premiere took place on Saturday.

For this enterprising summer company in its 15th season, presenting a world premiere was an important and risky step. The cost of this handsome, effective production was more than $300,000, constituting some 30 percent of the company's budget for the year. The audience reception has been gratifying. All four performances at the 510-seat theater of the Koussevitzky Arts Center at Berkshire Community College are sold out. I attended the second, this afternoon. The final two were scheduled for Thursday and Saturday.

The work was a fitting choice for the company. Wharton's grimly moving tale, which tells a story of sexual awakening and disdain between the classes, is set in a small town in the Berkshires, not far from the elegant home in Lenox, called the Mount, where Wharton once lived. Her heroine is Charity Royall, a young woman born to an impoverished mountain family, a ''decaying rural existence'' of ''sad, slow-speaking people,'' as Wharton described it in her autobiography.

At the age of 5, Charity is taken from an abusive mother by a character called Lawyer Royall, the most prominent citizen of North Dormer, a ''weather-beaten sunburnt village of the hills,'' Wharton calls it in the book. Yet, if North Dormer is no Springfield or Boston, the cities evoked in ''Summer'' like far-off magical kingdoms, it is still a proper town, and Charity is constantly expected to be grateful to the man who rescued her.

Now that she is a young adult, Royall wants to marry her. She finds the prospect hideous. The possibility of escape arrives when Lucius Harney, a dashing young architect, comes to town. ''Summer'' tells of their ill-fated affair.

Though Mr. Paulus's opera, his seventh, is thoroughly professional (an undervalued quality in contemporary opera circles), his music seldom penetrates the story's psychological depths in a way that adds to Wharton's incisive telling. His collaborator, the librettist Joan Vail Thorne, has efficiently compressed the events into a flowing narrative structure. But the language of the text is overly poetic.

''The wind keeps fingering my hair,'' Charity sings in the first scene, alone on the grass on a hot summer day. At dawn, after a nighttime tryst, Charity and Lucius look to the sky and sing, ''Still the stars and rainbows remain.'' It's rather flowery talk for a young woman so bored by books that she regularly cuts short the two-hour daily shift she works at the town's musty, pathetic library.

The sometimes extravagant language only calls attention to Mr. Paulus's sometimes extravagant music. A frequent charge leveled at contemporary opera is that the music does not sing. Mr. Paulus's plushly tonal music seldom stops singing. Characters are constantly breaking into mellifluous song.

Charity and Lucius have three extended love duets, including one (''I see fireworks in your eyes'') that reaches a real Andrew Lloyd Webber moment. But the lyrical moments seldom rise from the dramatic urgency of the story. The arias and ensembles keep moving on and off the stage with a similar efficiency to the sliding grayish slatted wood walls of David P. Gordon's attractive set.

Still, there are qualities to admire in Mr. Paulus's music. The writing for voices is rewarding. He sets words lucidly and this cast sang them clearly.

The instrumental scoring for an orchestra of 32 is coloristic. But only intermittently does the music capture the ambiguities of the novel, for example, in one telling scene, when Charity, staring at a mirror, reflects on her state in murky modal harmonies and quizzical arioso.

The production was striking. Mr. Gordon uses the slatted walls of his set to frame a series of projected images, some post-card real, that evoke the story's locales: book-lined library shelves, village squares, distant mountains. Mary Duncan, the stage director, drew rounded portrayals from her cast. As Chastity, Margaret Lattimore, a rich-voiced mezzo-soprano, captured her character's restless sensuality. Michael Chioldi, with his pleasant baritone voice, was a suitably handsome and callow Lucius.

The veteran bass-baritone John Cheek was compelling as Lawyer Royall, although the growth this character undergoes in the novel is not enough reflected in the opera. When this moralistic older man still offers to marry Charity, despite the fact that she is carrying Lucius's child, he seems motivated not by lust but by a sense of paternal care and a desperate desire for her continued companionship.

Strong work was provided by Joanna Johnson as Miss Hatchard, North Dormer's equivalent of a grande dame, Jane Jennings as the timid seamstress Ally, and Michaela Gurevich as Annabel Balch, Lucius's well-bred fiancee, whom he always intended to marry. Mr. Revzen drew shapely playing from the Camerata New York Orchestra.

The Berkshire Opera Company deserves much credit for presenting a premiere in a committed production. ''Summer'' is an efficient work for the operatic stage. That is its strength, but also its shortcoming.