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Steinbeck Country

Of Mice and Men
Ranch Fever: Aaron Scheidel (left), Thomas Truhitte, Barbara Divis and Brian Carter face their fates in 'Of Mice and Men.'

The symbols comes thick and fast in 'Of Mice and Men'

By Philip Collins

CARLISLE FLOYD established himself as a composer to be reckoned with by the time he adapted John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for the stage in 1970. The genuine lyricism of the composer's first and most celebrated opera, Susannah, won him national acclaim in 1955; and although premieres of Floyd's subsequent stage works have not met with equal enthusiasm, Of Mice and Men is today considered among his finest accomplishments.

Opera San José's presentation of the opera Saturday at the Montgomery Theater supported this claim with strong singing and concerted dramatic attentions. The event was made all the more auspicious by virtue of the composer's presence. Floyd attended the weekend's performances and also gave a lecture on Sunday evening.

Guest stage director Lillian Garrett-Groag gets to the core of Steinbeck's famous story by bringing a naturalistic tone to the staging. The director's sensitivity to Floyd's score was evident in her simple blocking of the arias as well as the evocative tableau used during the musical interludes. Unfortunately, Floyd's excessive reliance on instrumental commentary is only partially compensated for by Garrett-Groag's resourceful staging; the work still suffers from lengthy awkward stillnesses.

At times it seems as if the characters are absorbed into the still-life silhouettes of Kurt Meeker's sparse, emblematic sets. Meeker's designs frame scenes with inconspicuous grace, and Pamela Gray's subdued lighting capitalizes upon the opera's more mysterious mood plays.

THE ORCHESTRA, led by the company's resident conductor, Barbara Day Turner, accounted for Floyd's delicately textured score with particular warmth and some outstanding solo work, although the score's few aggressive episodes would have benefited from more muscle and tighter ensemble playing.

Floyd's setting of the novel is faithful to its source on emotional terms, and his orchestration is filled with glistening timbres and intricacies. Still, the score falls short of translating Steinbeck's fluid style. Nuance is observed to such an extent that the work's theatrical impact is sacrificed.

The story of two drifters, Lennie and George, out to make a new start as ranch hands on an unnamed spread bespeaks tragedy from the outset. We first see them off by themselves, Lennie holding a mouse he has inadvertently suffocated and George planning their next move. The mouse embodies a past that the two friends cannot outrun, and it also serves as an omen of the destiny that awaits them. Curly, the volatile ranch superintendent, and his flirtatious wife dramatically complicate George and Lennie's plans. It's clear by the second act that the two characters' days together are numbered.

There can be no question that the composer, who wrote his own libretto, is at home with Steinbeck's vernacular as well as with the mannerisms of our popular music traditions. It is the influence of Alban Berg's two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, that is problematic. The expressionist pallor that Floyd brings to Of Mice and Men works against the natural grain of Steinbeck's realistic style. Floyd's music broods about and psychoanalyzes the characters far more than is appropriate.

The score's most involving episodes are the ones that build on folk-song idioms, and one only wishes that there were more such instances. When George breaks out of his recitativelike utterances and into metered song to express his dream in "We got our own life," it's like a window opening up.

George, Lennie and Candy's celebrative dance piece is another spontaneous moment of which there are too few. The arrhythmic quality underlying most of the vocal settings creates a musical claustrophobia that--in this story at least--is a kind of cabin fever. Floyd treats the symbology of Steinbeck's novel with emphatic ceremony, ultimately dwarfing the cast beneath advance warnings of evil deeds and underlined ironies.

Aaron Scheidel and Brian Carter offered credible portrayals of the story's two lead roles, Lennie and George, respectively. For Lennie and George's duets, Floyd emphasizes the characters' special rapport but offers little contrast between them aside from the fact that Lennie is a tenor and George a baritone. Carter's voice grounds the duets and provides a richly hued complement to Scheidel's high, dreamy melodies.

As Curly, the volatile ranch superintendent, tenor Thomas Truhitte lent bristling energy, and Barbara Divis' performance as the brazen wife sizzled. Christopher Dickerson's lanky portrayal of Candy, the old ranch hand who plans to go in with George and Lennie on their future land purchase, was especially memorable. So too was Brian Leerhuber's lean voicing of Slim the foreman, whose singing cut through the show like a branding iron.

Of Mice and Men, an Opera San José production, plays Nov. 20-22, 25-26 and 29 at 8pm and Nov. 23 and 30 at 3pm at the Montgomery Theater, Market and San Carlos streets, San Jose. Tickets are $30-$48. (408/437-4450)

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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