World Premiere of Bernard Rands' Opera Vincent at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music

[Music, Bernard Rands; Libretto, J. D. McClatchy; Conductor, Arthur Fagen; Stage Director, Vincent Liotta; Costume Designer, Linda Pisano; Production Designer, Barry Steele; Choreographer, Michael Vernon. CAST: David Adam Moore, Jacob Williams, Luke Williams, Elizabeth Toy, Peter Thoresen, Kirsta Costin, Hirotaka Kata, Corey Bonar, James Arnold, Paoloma Friedhof.]

To be present at Indiana University for the world premiere of Vincent, a powerfully affecting opera by composer Bernard Rands and librettist J. D. McClatchy, is to remember again why Wagner insisted that "the highest perfection is reserved for the musically arranged drama." Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music is not quite Bayreuth, but it does represent one of the most significant centers for music education and production excellence in opera in the United States, and it commissioned and offered a premiere performance of Rands' new work that both confirms the School's reputation and proves, with his striking new American opera about Vincent van Gogh, that one of the preeminent composers of the 20th century is also an enduring master of "musically arranged drama" for the 21st.

With Vincent, Rands has done it the hard way. For art has been the subject of theater and musical theater often enough in our era to demonstrate the perils of the genre; think of Stephen Sondheim's ode to Seurat, Sunday in the Park with George, or the recent Paul Rudman riff on Mark Rothko called Red -- both successes, yet risky enough to lead many creators to resist the temptation. For art about art, artists celebrating artistry, runs the risk both of ponderous cliché (the starving painter! the half-mad, wholly misunderstood genius!) and narcissistic tedium (look at the writer writing! see the painter paint!).

Happily for all of us, the Pulitzer-Prize winning composer Bernard Rands (full disclosure: I am a friend who has long admired his music) did not resist the temptation. On the contrary he lived with it for 40 years, from the moment long ago when he visited the then-new Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and found himself stirred, until in his mature years he could finally indulge it. Having found a partner in poetry (J. D. McClatchy) and a musical idiom fit for the task, he delivers a musical portrait of the infinitely talented, utterly neglected, and far too short-lived Van Gogh as luminous as Vincent himself and as illuminating about the nature of art as anything on music or theater stages today.

Rands' musical style is distinctive among contemporary composers in that he has absorbed the technical disciplines of Berio and Berio's teacher Luigi Dallapiccolla (where familiar tonality yields to spare serialism) without losing his natural inclinations to sumptuous orchestration and sensuous musicality of the kind we might associate with Ravel or Debussy. A perfect combination if one hopes to capture Van Gogh's ardent spirit without sentimentalizing or trivializing his rather too familiar agonies. Indeed, the frequent orchestral interludes permit the composer to distill the drama in bursts of pure sound.

Rands has found an ideal partner in J.D. McClatchey, a renowned poet with a strong if somewhat melancholy voice, but who as a librettist has used his command of language to select and render fit for musical setting the texts of others (he is not the editor of the Yale Review for nothing!). As a librettist, McClatchy has often done adaptations, working with Ned Rorem on Wilder's Our Town (also a Jacobs School production) and on The Magic Flute. Here his authorial expertise allows us the illusion that Vincent's letters and life speak to us directly.

The result of this collaboration is a vivid portrait of Vincent in music and poetry that does not merely draw the tragic painter's likeness, but gives us an inkling of the contours of his conflicted soul. We look and listen from the inside out, and what we hear is what we imagine is music Van Gogh might have written had he been a composer rather than a painter. The broad brush strokes reappear as insistent horns, the brash colors as lush orchestrations, the forms in swirling tension as disturbing percussion. A bass clarinet seems a deep echo of Van Gogh's despair. But of course the man behind the brushstrokes is also the man revealed in the music -- not clichéd madness or a too familiar self-mutilation, but deep tensions between Vincent's love of God and his sense of impotence, his celebration of art and his commercial failure as an artist, his aspiration to artistic community (the disastrous aesthetic flirtation with Paul Gauguin) and the poisonous solitude of his actual life.

Nowhere in the opera is this more poignantly expressed than in an early scene, all in lugubrious grays, in which Vincent, on the verge of an epileptic attack, stands as pastor before a group of miners in Borinage, trying to save men who are lost, but unable even to save himself. Rands gives us a traditional French hymn against which he writes a staccato counterpoint that follows Vincent's stuttering descent into hell: "O God why hast thou abandoned me?" A scene that will haunt all who experience it.

Rands and McClatchy are aided in their effort to go from the inside out in showing us Vincent's âme déchirée, his torn soul, by their ingenious production designer, Barry Steele. Steele faces the project's most daunting challenge: How to present the familiar paintings without becoming too literal. He can't just give us the pictures, as if it were Art 101. Nor can he settle for the conventional cartoon sets -- the dusty studio dripping paint, the barren insane asylum with barred windows, the checkered cloth Paris café.

Instead, taking his cue from Rands' own exploration of Vincent from the inside out, Steele gives us a brilliant tour of the artist's tumult-prone imagination. We see neither the material world from which the paintings are made nor (with a few exceptions) the paintings themselves. Rather we are witness to the interior alchemy by which the one becomes the other, colors swirling and forming into shapes and images projected on large upstage panels and a looming down stage scrim -- the upper and lower light-strewn parameters of Vincent's ever morphing mind.

The opera's only serious problem -- aside from the absence of substantial women's roles (a feature of Vincent's life rather than of the libretto) -- is associated with its greatest virtue: as a compelling portrait of an artist's inner life depicted in a succession of vignettes and tableaux, the work constantly touches us. But it can also have an episodic, almost picaresque feel that is theatrically static. Moreover, though his language is nearly perfect, McClatchy does not seem to have given the same attention to the dramatic arc of the play. The climactic scene portraying Vincent's agony at the mine comes early. And we are not really made ready dramatically for the (who cannot be waiting for it?) ear mutilation or the terminal suicide which is not quite terminal.

A portrait is not yet a narrative with a dramatic architecture. Nor need it be when the portrait is so musically powerful. Yet the director, Vincent Liotta, might have helped give the story an arc, just as more experienced actors might have found directional momentum in their character development. First things first, though: the young artists deserve only praise for the talent and discipline with which they perform Rands' complex and challenging score. As Rands has said, he has composed for the Met rather than write down to patronize a university program. With their enormously affecting voices, the performers prove themselves fully up to the job.

That is not to say they might not have benefited by stronger dramatic guidance from Liotta, since quite understandably their acting skills are more limited than their musicality. David Adam Moore, the Baritone who played Vincent on opening night (there are two casts) has a strong and appealing voice, but his youthful vigor makes it hard for him to consistently display the vulnerability and pathos that stalk van Gogh's sun-flower optimism and starry-night piety, qualities that Moore finds in the Borinage mining scene but does not fully capitalize on. Jacob Williams gives a crisp portrait of Vincent's loyal brother Theo (a bit of a cipher in the script, as in life) and Hirotaka Kato uses his pleasant bass to depict Paul Gauguin, although his acting lacks the clarity to make Vincent's sparring partner altogether real. Kato too might have benefitted from dramatic coaching as expert as the musical coaching for which Indiana is appropriately celebrated.

But these are inevitable shortcomings of a talented but youthful cast that can hardly be expected to manifest a maturity and experience so far beyond their years. And where it counts, with the music, all of the soloists along with the orchestra and the mellifluous chorus, under the spirited baton of Arthur Fagen, manifest the excellence that is the signature of the renowned training program at the Jacobs School.

Vincent is a work that will be a crowning achievement in Rands' estimable career, and is likely to become a fixture of opera repertoire in all those places that cherish new and inspiring work. It also once again pays tribute to the Jacobs School at Indiana that commissioned and given it so worthy a first showing. But more than this, Vincent provides welcome evidence that, in the hands of a master, opera is still an art form capable of that "highest perfection" to which Wagner appealed -- a medium that speaks across generations and leaps the classical/popular divide in its capacity to move the human soul.