MISSY MAZZOLI (b.1980): Proving Up.
Catalogue Number: 09W062
Reference: PTC5186 754
Description: Mazzoli and her librettist, Royce Vavrek, "set out to find a story that was timely, unusual, and uniquely American", and hit the jackpot with the surreal Americana of a short story by Karen Russell. Russell's fiction tells uniquely American stories, amplified through a distorting lens of symbolism, the supernatural, and the conventions of the horror genre, and Proving Up is a fine example; for all the heroic stories of pioneer success through grit, dogged determination and strength in the face of the harshest conditions, there must have been many unsung failures, undone by character flaws or sheer bad luck. The Zegner family, 1860s homesteaders, try to do everything correctly, fulfilling the requirements for landownership, verified by an all-powerful Inspector, for "five years of harvest, a house of sod, acres of wheat, and a glass window". Never losing their faith in the American Dream, they fail; the father becomes a drunkard; the younger son, Miles, mentally unstable yet in many ways the least troubled character, talks to the livestock and is the only character who can see his dead twin sisters, who narrate the opera for the rest of us. The family’s undoing is the window, stolen from a neighbouring abandoned homestead. It leads to Miles' death at the hands of a mysterious figure of Death ("The Sodbuster", a philosophising grim reaper peculiar to the Plains) and the final abandonment of the homestead. Mazzoli's music is tonal and accessible, at once belonging to and parodying the recently popular genre of readily assimilable modern American opera of Carlisle Floyd and his successors Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo, Dominick Argento, Robert Aldridge, Louis Karchin and others. The score is precisely calibrated to be subtly unsettling, or downright disturbing, throughout; the unusual instrumentation includes multiple acoustic guitars and harmonicas, but playing strange sonorities unrelated to their usual context in popular or folk music, and the music is displaced in time, sometimes suggesting baroque and classical styles, sometimes folk-fiddling (to fragments of made-up tunes), and always with an underlying tension that subtly undermines the innocence of Miles' musings or underlines the shockingly abrasive screeching of the undead sisters as they introduce the Sodbuster episode. Homespun American history as arthouse horror film; really well done. Libretto included. Michael Slattery (tenor), John Moore (baritone), Talise Trevigne (soprano), Abigail Nims (mezzo), International Contemporary Ensemble; Christopher Rountree.