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Opera review: RPO presents "The Mother of Us All"


When Virgil Thomson died in 1989, Leonard Bernstein’s reaction was something to the effect of “We all loved his music, but we never played it.” Thomson seems to be firmly in the American pantheon of composers, along with Ives, Copland, Gershwin, Barber, and the rest, but Thomson’s music is indeed remarkably under-performed. He’s still a remarkable composer, as the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrated in its Thursday presentation of his opera “The Mother of Us All.”

I doubt that Ward Stare would have bothered to present “The Mother of Us All” unless he believed in it completely, and he led the RPO in a briskly moving show, from the fanfares and drum rolls that open the opera to the slow fade and simple tonic chord that end it. Thomson’s opening orchestral medley (titled “A Political Meeting”) had the pizzazz of a Broadway show, and the energy level did not drop afterwards.

Many mid-century American composers borrowed from American popular music of the past, but Thomson was one of the first (as Aaron Copland admitted), and none did it as straightforwardly and guilelessly as he did — in operas, ballet and film scores, and a “Symphony on a Hymn Tune” (a Thomson work the RPO really should resurrect).

“The Mother of Us All” is American as all get-out: an hour-and-40-minute, cunningly arranged, crazy quilt of hymn tunes, bandstand waltzes, parlor songs, bugle calls and marches, and what Thomson called “darnfool ditties.” There are brief but amusing references to Johann Strauss and John Philip Sousa. As an American who studied and worked in Paris, Thomson also throws in a little of the French Impressionist stuff (whole-tone scales) and the ‘20s modernist stuff (some pleasingly dissonant counterpoint). It all sounds like something else, and it all sounds completely unique.

Thomson offers some beautiful woodwind writing as well, as delightfully raucous opportunities for the brass, especially the trumpets, and the RPO players ran with them. In fact, the orchestra’s incisive playing covered the singers a few times. An opera that can seem long and discursive was pointed and moving. Susan Stone Li’s stage direction, which gave the action a more contemporary feel, was a great help here as well.

All this is set to a strange, wonderful libretto by Gertrude Stein, nominally about Susan B. Anthony’s struggles and eventual success in helping to get the 19th Amendment passed, securing women’s right to vote.. Instead of showing Anthony’s political work in detail, Stein presents her amid an array of 19th-century characters, most historical (Ulysses S. Grant, Daniel Webster, Lillian Russell, Andrew Johnson) and a few made up, including a couple of kibitzers named Jo the Loiterer and Chris the Citizen, and a nascent feminist named Indiana Elliott.
On Saturday, February 8, Yelena Dyachek (pictured) portrays Susan B. Anthony in the RPO's concert presentation of Virgil Thomson's opera "The Mother of Us All." - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • On Saturday, February 8, Yelena Dyachek (pictured) portrays Susan B. Anthony in the RPO's concert presentation of Virgil Thomson's opera "The Mother of Us All."
With all those characters wandering around, Susan B. is sometimes in danger of getting upstaged in her own opera, but Yelena Dyachek sings the role beautifully, especially when Susan B. drops her guard to voice her despair that the vote for women may never be passed. And of course, during her lifetime, it wasn’t.

Stein’s writing is often oblique, but “The Mother of Us All” is relatively straightforward and often delightfully funny. And since its main character is a real person who did real things, there are some bitterly eloquent outbursts from Susan B. about male-dominated society: “They fear women, they fear each other, they fear their neighbor, they fear other countries and then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and follow each other. They are brutes, like animals who stampede.”

Renée Tatum and Briana Hunter display attractive tone and feisty personalities as Indiana Elliott and Constance Fletcher, and Sam Levine is delightfully pompous as Constance’s surprisingly amorous suitor John Adams (yes, that John Adams). Brenton Ryan plays Jo the Loiterer amusingly as a tuxedoed ne’er-do-well, and Sam Handley’s sonorous bass is ideal for the oratorical Daniel Webster. I don’t think “The Mother of Us All” is generally considered a vehicle for beautiful singing, but there was plenty of it here.

Beside his gifts as a composer, Virgil Thomson was a mostly terrific music critic, and a very influential one — in the days when a newspaper music critic could be influential. Thomson could also be famously nasty, but I think he would have enjoyed the RPO’s current production of his masterpiece as much as I did.