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Houston's all-American opera

American opera has always been in search of an idiom, a language, to make the art form uniquely, indigenously American.m The search has been long, hard, and essentially fruitless. There are precious few works that have emerged to hold the stage and proclaim themselves, though it has not been for want of effort.

The man with the best batting average to date is arguably Carlisle Floyd, whose "Susannah" hasm had a life of its own, as has his more recent "Of Mice and Men," which has even been performed in such places as Ireland's Wexford Festival.

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And now, picking up the pieces after his critically disastrous "Bilby's Doll, " Floyd has written "Willie Stark." The work, a co-production of the Houston grand Opera and the Kennedy Center in Washington, is on stage here in an all-stops-out effort boasting a gifted acting cast, Harold Prince's engrossing production, and the impressive overall professional acumen that has made the Houston Grand Opera a model American company and one of the great success stories on the national musical scene.

The opera deserves to have a life of its own. It is an earnest, eloquent score ideally suited to smaller companies, offering fine vehicles for four principals, numerous secondary performers, and a good director. It packs its wallop, and audiences love it, if Houston's insistent, vociferous standing ovation is any indication.

Willie Stark is the name of the Huey Longbased character Robert Penn Warren treated in his sprawling novel "All the King's Men." It seems a rather unwieldy framework for an opera, particularly one scored for only a 35-piece orchestra. Floyd has tackled the novel with great gusto, and he is one of the few living opera composers today who can conceive of an execute a sufficiently theatrical libretto as to not make one wish he would seek more professional help. However, sacrifices to the depth and texture of Warren's novel have had to be made, and it is not altogether apparent that Floyd's choices were wise ones.

Floyd's musical muse may not be the most characterful or distinctive. Nevertheless, he is a wise and thoughtful composer, gifted with a splendid ear for melody, a firm conviction of what expressive powers opera as an art form possesses. He exploits these well, and often movingly. The stretches between these masterful scenes and arias are filled with a sort of lugubrious undertow perhaps best categorized as American agitato, for Floyd is a distinctly and distinctively American musician. His rythms come from jazz, and also from the speech patterns of this seemingly unmusical language.

There is an ominous, brooding undertow that spans the opera, as Floyd tells of this corn-pone politician, this redneck who falls into political power as a figure of backlash against the corruption of machine politicking. What Floyd fails convincingly to convey is the staggering irony of Stark's devolution into a thuggy boss. We get so much of the simple idealist who loves the people, and not enough of the corrupt and banal tyrant Stark became --destruction.

The people around Stark lose depth and texture as well. The spineless Duffy loses his treacherous edge. Sodie becomes too simplistically in love with Willie. By becoming a composite of so many disparate characters in the book, Jack Burden's motivations become at first murky and then rather too pat. And after he has been killed killing Stark, he is forgotten -- not even a hint at the shock that one so close to Stark could kill him. In short, the ironic contrasts that are at the core of Warren are not even hinted at here.

That said, the tapestry that Floyd does weave is a rich one. We get love conflicts, power politics, closeted skeletons, suicides, murder, mayhem, and passions, all tellingly put to music. Most of the principals have vivid arias that are not only challenging as vocal feats, but thoroughly compelling as musical encounters.

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The first act seems to have general and also, specifically, pacing problems -- appearing some 10 or 15 minutes too long for its own good. But many operas have first acts that seem too long, yet if cut, would utterly destroy the cumulative impact of the closing act. And those closing pages, with Willie shot , killed, and given a haunting apotheosis, are very moving, indeed, without being unduly sentimental. That it happens to put the totally wrong emphasis on the character becomes altogether beside the point.

Prince's production is massive, monumental. The set by Eugene Lee is a stretch of steps, framed by neofascist architectural columns with noble political catchwords and ideals chiseled into the surface. The creamish hue of it all is quite handsome visually, utterly impersonal, rather dehumanizing, and not at all indicative of a down-South tale of intrinsically American political corruption. It also robs the numerous intimate personal scenes of focus and impact while taking one's theatrical breath away in the big rallies and the chilling assassination scene.

Ken Billington's lighting gives the production the color it so desperately needs, Judith Dolan's costumes are all to the point, and the entire show has the look of a big Broadway production. That is not meant as a pejorative, as if Broadway were the supposed enemy of operatic reality.

For many Broadway has been the only American musico-theatrical original, and certainly the theatrical values of Broadway have been consistently more inventive than those seen on most operatic stages. Nonetheless, there are problems where Prince's ideas, though usually stunning, clash with what the music is actually asking for.

The cast assembled was splendidly theatrical -- a handsome array of actors who sing well -- the new trend in American opera overall. Yet Floyd's music consistently asked that the singers be full-throatedly operatic, to have voices of quality, and power with easy ringing tops so that his or her particularly operatic emotion could be expressed meaningfully. In just about every case, this production fails on that level, while it triumphs on the purely histrionic one.

Timothy Nolen may be the only baritone today who can create such a vivid Willie, and make us care (care too much, in fact) for his plight, make us hope that venality will not overtake the simple honest qualities. At times he seemed too energetic for his own good, echoing a Frank Sinatra-portrayed hood rather than country-folk Willie. But it proved a compelling performance nonetheless, securely, efficiently, if rather colorlessly vocalized.

The other grand performance came from Jan Curtis as Sadie, actually convincing us that this attractive singer was really the pockmarked, dowdy, desperate creature Sadie says she is. Miss Curtis's voice is not as smooth and rounded as one might have wanted, but she gave a larger-than-life performance, which is, after all, what opera is all about, and is exactly what was needed to match Mr. Nolen.

Alan Keys, the Jack Burden, proved a pleasant presence noticeably overtaxed by the vocal demands of a very good role. Julia Conwell was equally at odds with the most explicitly operatic role in the work -- that of Anne Stanton, Jack's fiancee who becomes Stark's mistress. The remainder of the cast performed more than honorably. The chorus looked well and moved impressively. In the pit, John DeMain was passionate with the music yet attentive and kind to his singers.

The production now moves intact to Washington's Kennedy Center for 12 performances between May 9 and 29. Perhaps amplification will not be needed there -- consistently the most annoying part of the Houston production, yet (ironically) crucial for understanding the generally excellent diction.Some changes are said to be in the works, and perhaps (though improbably) the voice-overs from a soporific Lowell Thomas will be scuttled, as will the final Starkian taped vocal fl ashback that all but kills the mood of Floyd's music.

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