Records / Puccini with a New York accent: Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on Blitzstein's Regina and Schuman

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Blitzstein: Regina - Soloists, Scottish Opera Orchestra & Chorus / Mauceri

(Decca 433 812-2; two CDs)

THE all-American opera never did find a permanent home on Broadway. Or did it? Where do you draw that line (indeed, should you?) between Broadway Musical Theatre and Opera? Marc Blitzstein's ground-beaking Regina falls somewhere between the two: the cues for songs are better integrated, the 'book' - after Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes - seems to assume its music as only opera can. In a few short pages of prologue Blitzstein has established the changing face of America's deep south, c 1900: an old Spiritual is magically transformed into Dixieland stomp. Regina's great strength is its belief in the dramatic potency of its text. Blitzstein's musical metaphors are carefully chosen, the tone of his score at its sweetest when the characters are at their vilest. Graceful, old-fashioned melodies wash over its elegant facades, maintaining a thin cloak of respectability over the prejudice, corruption, and greed of Regina and her clan. In its most innovative scene - Regina's sumptuous party in Act 2 - a series of formal dances keep up appearances while the wheeling, dealing, and scheming moves on apace: a charming waltz is the backdrop for Regina's ugly treatise on the 'nibbling' poor. At its most lyric Regina is Puccini with a Madison Avenue accent: in one rare moment of spiritual tranquillity, the opera's only decent protagonists listen to the falling rain, a playful patter quartet turning to a glorious anthem to better values. The same tune, the same words will break your heart in the quietly shattering final scene. Mauceri's eager performance is a fine one, voices well-matched, dialogue a mite score-bound but authentic-sounding. Regina stays with you; there's a place for it on or off Broadway. ES

I'VE TRIED being objective about this - bearing in mind that Blitzstein was a figure of proven political integrity, that the blending of high art and vernacular styles was seminal, that the choice of subject matter and its handling was anything but escapist. For lovers of the genre this will probably be a treasure-house; for me, though, this 'Broadway opera' has too much of the worst of both worlds - the formality of opera without the melodic riches, the rough edges of Broadway without the vitality.

Would a pacier performance have helped? It might have increased the dramatic tension in places, but the Angel Band puts its collective back into the jazz numbers determinedly enough without striking too many sparks. And even Theresa Merritt's loving carefulness doesn't warm Addie's 'Night could be time to sleep' (the big Act 2 scene 2 number) to life. Samuel Ramey's Horace Giddens sounds powerful enough, but as the scheming mater familias, Regina herself, Katherine Ciesinski is no Bette Davis, and her cold tone and wide vibrato put an emotional screen between her and me in almost all the big moments. It bothers me how little I cared about the fate of the characters. And as for the fake Deep South accents in 'Is a new day a-commin'?' - I thought it never would. Let's just say this isn't for me. SJ

SCHUMAN: Symphony No 10 etc Saint Louis Symphony / Slatkin (BMG/RCA 09026 61282-2)

WHAT does 'American Muse' suggest to you? Fanfares for the common man, double fugues on 'Star spangled banner' and 'Yankee Doodle', sweet Copland-ish soundscapes threaded with homely hymn-tunes? If so, Schuman's Symphony No 10 may be a bracing surprise. The style is gritty, boldly dissonant and, in the end, rather invigorating.

I don't quite understand why each of the three movements ends with a bald major triad; in context the effect is almost ironic - 'An American artist's reply to anticipated criticism'? Unlikely - even the early, and unashamedly populist American Festival Overture keeps the harmonic punches coming right up to the end.

The music I warm to most, though, is in the New England Triptych - no gentle pastoral, but a celebration of Republican resolution and independence - and the wickedly inventive scoring of Ives's Variations on 'America', with its theme not quite an ocean away from 'God Save the Queen' - just the thing for antagonising staunchly royalist relations. I can't imagine better performances. Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra deliver this music with energy and brilliance - the brass playing can be sheer joy - and the recordings are just right: the feel of wide open spaces and the clarity and sharpness of the cleanest studio. SJ

JUST about the whole 'Bill' Schuman story, fervently told by a true believer. The indomitable pioneering spirit is in every steel rivet of Schuman's music: it's music of determination, where energy equals creativity - the American way. You'll find all the ingredients in the cheer-leading American Festival Overture with its shrill woodwind hoorays and mighty fanfare-derived syncopations. New England Triptych reflects on the past, when hymns turned into marching songs, while the Tenth Symphony, his last, is like a synthesis of everything Schumanesque, industrious brass and percussion (Schuman fields some wild tattoos) striving tirelessly for impetus around a still, meditative centre. There you'll find the spiritual heart of a nation where optimism rules but where it's still a long, tough haul to a radiant G major chord. Slatkin has even thrown in Schuman's sidelong wink to his irreverent predecessor, Charles Ives: Variations on 'America' - a tune better known as our own National Anthem, begging for ridicule. Schuman's spoofy orchestration is just the job.

ES

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