Music noted as strength in ‘Tender Land’

By Tracey D’Astolfo

The opera is rather short and story-wise, not too heavy.

YOUNGSTOWN — “The Tender Land” begins with dawn breaking over a weathered farm house and barn, somewhere in rural middle America in the 1930s.

But the setting is more like “The Wizard of Oz” than “The Grapes of Wrath.” No one is pulling up stakes. It’s prewar America — a simpler, happier time, untouched by evil and ugliness.

Youngstown State University’s Performing Arts Series is staging “The Tender Land,” an opera. American composer Aaron Copland wrote the music, and the libretto is by Erik Johns.

“The Tender Land” isn’t on the list of most-frequently performed operas. Story-wise, it’s not very heavy. And at just two hours, including a 30-minute second act that follows an intermission, it’s also rather short.

But that’s America — more about the future than the past.

YSU’s production, directed by Allan R. Mosher, includes an authentic-looking set and fine performers. It opened Thursday.

The strength of “Tender Land” is the music, and music director Jon Simsic and his small orchestra play Copland’s score beautifully. It is a distinctly American work that is evocative of the landscape and psyche of Norman Rockwell’s America.

The orchestra mixes in undertones of fiddle and bluegrass, lending a sense of place and humanity to the soothing melodies, which seem to drift over farmlands, fields and country roads. It strikes an American chord that never fades.

Carrie Minenok sings the role of Laurie Moss, who is about to become the first member of her family to graduate from high school. It’s a happy time on the farm, where she lives with her mother (played by Elizabeth Walker), grandfather (Trevor Coleman) and little sister Beth (Natalie Modarelli). Many of the roles are double-cast for the four performances.

Minenok, Walker and Coleman played them on opening night and will again tonight; but the parts will be played by Lynn Sabeh, Shawna Jones and Joshua Taylor, respectively, on Sunday.

All the neighbors gather for Laurie’s graduation party, which includes a fun, if not subdued, country dance number. At the party, Laurie falls in love with one of the drifter-farmhands named Martin (played by Matthew J. Miles), much to the dismay of her mother and protective Grandpa, who orders the men off his land at daybreak. Laurie makes a secret pact to go with him, but Martin thinks better of the hastily formed plan and leaves before she awakens.

At the play’s end, the heartbroken but headstrong Laurie heads off alone to find her way, a restless and optimistic soul in a young country. She walks off beyond the wood-post ranch fence that she had come to view as a pen that held her in.

Minenok’s voice is powerful, clear and precise at all ranges, and she effects the openness and spunk of a young woman. Her duet with the equally talented Walker is very pleasant and one of the opera’s highlights. The same holds true for her late-night lovers’ dialogue with the expressive Miles, which brims with innocence and tension on that fertile soil.

The other smooth-talking drifter in “Tender Land” is the charismatic Top, played by Max Pivik on opening night. Pivik possesses a deep and warm voice that’s very suitable, especially when he emerges as the voice of reason while talking to Martin.

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