Classical Music: As American as mom's apple pie

Puritanical, Oedipal and eminently singable, `Emmeline' is a whole- grain slice of Americana. Edward Seckerson applauds the opening night in Santa Fe

A brand-new all-American opera, Emmeline, was christened at Santa Fe, New Mexico, a little over a week ago. Judith Rossner (she of Looking for Mr Goodbar) wrote the novel, JD McClatchy the libretto, Tobias Picker the score. Picker has described Emmeline as "a tragedy of sweeping proportions". Big words. Big country. Americans know all there is to know about "sweeping proportions". It's in the blood, it's in the constitution. It's in the words of Oscar Hammerstein II, for heaven's sake: "You know you belong to the land, and the land you belong to is grand." To deny that is to deny the national character. Picker and his collaborators do not, and maybe, just maybe, that's what makes Emmeline an international event.

Rossner's novel is a weighty one. The setting is rural America in the mid-19th century. The Mosher family have fallen upon hard times. Henry, a farmer, and his wife Sarah are burying yet another of their children. Aunt Hannah urges them to send 13-year-old Emmeline, their eldest, to work in a New England textile mill. Once there, she is seduced by the owner's philandering son. A child is born but hurriedly offered for adoption before Emmeline even sees it. Twenty years later, she falls in love with, and marries, a mysterious stranger. In a twist of Oedipal inevitability - yes, you've guessed it - husband turns out to be son, and Emmeline is abandoned, rejected by all. Weighty, as I say. Historically, socially, Rossner chews on some pretty contentious issues here. But this is opera, where the dramatic - or rather melodramatic - narrative holds sway, where the emotional stakes are pitched so high that characters assume a tragic gravity far removed from life as we know it. Though, having said that, the moralistic high-ground currently occupied by America's extreme right- wing is such as to make Picker and McClatchy's brand of rhetoric seem positively low-key. They have not, could not have, conveyed the full import of Rossner's ambitious novel, but the spirit, the wholeheartedness of it does come through. And strongly.

Picker's score is proudly, unashamedly, tonally, free-range Americana. You can trace its lines of succession through most of the great and good of America's musical past and present. Which is not to say that it feels second-hand. Not at all. There's a voice here, an impassioned one. But you know where it's coming from. There are phrases so immediate, so strangely familiar, that we may not at once appreciate how original they are. The aching lamentoso of the opening page is a case in point. It serves notice of a symphonist's feeling for narrative and development. And of a way with vocal lines that resonates all the way back to, and beyond, Porgy and Bess. At best, Picker is eminently singable. And that's no idle compliment.

Sometimes the inspiration comes over as more corn-fed than free-range. A somewhat iffy "point number" for the mill girls and their landlady Mrs Bass (Josepha Gayer) is Broadway to its painted fingertips. Then again, a "letter scene" for Emmeline - Appalachian flute and harp in attendance - is none the worse for its affectionate tugging towards Copland. These are fleeting nods of recognition (perhaps even conscious homages) on Picker's part: they would seem to reflect his own experiences as surely as those of his characters. A simple harmonica tune is elevated to an expression of regret for lost innocence, the chanting of Emmeline's name becomes a chilling leitmotif repeatedly baying out on horns in her moment of direst need and, most striking of all, the long-awaited love duet, when it comes, is at once impatient for, and fearful of the future, trumpet and fractured piano (the orchestra's leading protagonist - a busy, unsettling, weaving voice) engaged in a nervy ragtime.

And, with that, the Santa Fe stage opens to the night sky. There is no permanent back wall to this stage: just nature's very own cyclorama. Designer Robert Israel has devised his own swinging wall-cum-door, a huge black cross precariously embedded atop it, as if God, in his displeasure, has hurled it down as a warning to sinners. On this particular night, some timely streaks of lightning (yes, the real stuff) arrived as if on cue. Perhaps producer Francesca Zambello has a hot line to the Almighty. She has just about everything else sewn up. Her stage pictures were, as ever, simply but strongly composed.

And none more unforgettable than Patricia Racette's moving Emmeline, deserted and alone, miming the action of the loom as if to spin her life away in the closing moments of the piece. The metaphor has come full circle. As has the piece. In an inspiring final scene (which really does take the opera on to an altogether more serious level), Picker and McClatchy return to where things began. All the figures in Emmeline's past come together in a powerful ensemble (and this excellent company, under conductor George Manahan's direction, really behaves like an ensemble), only to leave, one by one. So past and present, reminiscence and reality, guilty secrets and the price of them, are all one. Emmeline's final monologue is wrought in the best traditions of tragic opera and Racette is unstinting. She's a young singer to watch, and watch her we will. Vocally and emotionally (and how often they seem like separate concerns), her Emmeline goes the extra distance and that's what makes the difference. Jocasta chose death. Emmeline chooses life. Or rather, endurance. Puritan America lives on.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition