by Steven Pisano
"Proving Up," the new chamber opera by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek, opened at the Miller Theatre Wednesday night, to an audience brimming with composers, singers, and directors in the contemporary NYC opera scene. A fellow photographer was overheard saying: "Screw the Met! This is the place to be" - a reference to the news earlier this week that the Met Opera has commissioned a new opera from Mazzoli based on George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo.”
Mazzoli and Vavrek are perhaps best known as the team responsible for 2016's "Breaking the Waves," based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, which remains one of the standout productions I have seen in the last five years. But "Proving Up" - a co-commission with the Washington National Opera and Opera Omaha - proved to be something very different. Based on a short story by Karen Russell," it is a bleak, mysterious, and slow-moving work about the opening of the American West. In order to earn "free" land being offered by the U.S. Government via the Homestead Acts (known as "proving up"), settlers in Nebraska needed to abide by certain requirements, such as residing on the land for five years and making improvements to it. One of these "improvements" was that settlers install glass windows in their house. It is around one such window that this opera revolves.
The Zegner family has encountered many hardships. Two unnamed daughters (Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico) are dead and buried on the land, though they appear dramatically throughout the opera as mischievous symbols of death, reminiscent of the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick's film "The Shining." Another older son, Peter (Sam Shapiro), has been seriously injured somehow. The youngest son, Miles, who is supposed to be 11, is played by a grown man (Michael Slattery). Late in the story, a mysterious stranger called "The Sodbuster" (Andrew Harris) appears, but he seems to muddy the story rather than add to it.
The production, directed by James Darrah, featured a minimal set designed by Adam Rigg, with a raw plywood cutout in the shape of a house and a foot of real dirt covering most of the stage. The period costumes were designed by Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko.
The opera starts ominously with a deep baritone voice offstage singing the 1862 folk song "Uncle Sam's Farm." ("Come along, come along, make no delay/Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.") The singer is Pa Zenger (John Moore). He is followed by Ma Zenger (Talise Trevigne), who sings about raising her family on the prairie. But the hardships are so harsh, it makes a reasonable person wonder why anyone would have endured them, even for free land. There is none of the giddy, sunny glee of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"
Alongside Moore's riveting performance, Nims and Carrico delivered captivating turns as the two dead girls. Unfortunately, the opera itself is tough to make sense of, and even a day later I'm not sure if it all adds up or not, but these three performances are superb.
Another highlight is Mazzoli's strange and scratchy music, which gets under your skin even as it works its way into your ears. It was music you could feel, not just hear--quiet, but ferocious. Credit here must also be given to the excellent performances by the musicians in the the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) under the musical direction of Christopher Rountree. If you are interested in the direction of new opera, "Proving Up" is essential viewing.
There is one more performance tonight (Friday, 9/28). A handful of tickets are still available here.