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Opera Review: Eastman Opera Theatre presents "Our Town" 

Grover's Corners, according to author Thornton Wilder, represents everyone's "home town."

In Thursday night's performance of "Our Town'" by the Eastman School of Music Opera Theatre, the lighting took on a special significance for scene placement as images from Rochester's past were projected on the back wall of the bleak staging of chairs and ladders.

The opera -- created by Ned Rorem, who is 91 years old and still composing -- premiered at Indiana University in 2007. There is a sense of experimentation in Rorem's very accessible orchestration that leads us toward the more "modern" sounds of dissonance, fragments of melodies, and special effects. The trumpet provides us with the melodic energy, while the piano distracts us with its colorful interruptions in the flow of the music. The onstage singing is always more melodic and familiar to our ear than the orchestra. "Our Town" made me feel as if I should go back to my library, and look at the collection of songs that I have by Rorem, whom Time Magazine has called "the world's best composer of art songs."

The Eastman Opera Theatre's performance of "Our Town" is split into alternating castings. The performers I saw on April 9 -- and mention here -- will appear again on Saturday, April 11.

This is the story of George Gibb (Samuel Grosby), captain of the baseball team, and Emily Webb (Paige Kiefner), the best student in her class, who fall in love, even though they are quite different from one another. While discussing math homework from their upstairs bedroom windows, the opera offers its first duet from these characters, their vocal melodies intertwining as their relationship develops. Downstairs, Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Cody Muller and Elizabeth Sharonov) also share an intimate duet mirroring the kids upstairs. Grosby shines as George, with his adolescent posturing and his strong lyrical tenor voice. Kiefner, the more mature of the two, boasts a fuller, stronger, and rounded sound, which came to be important for the last act. Muller, as Dr. Gibbs, resonates authority with his virile bass voice throughout the production.

The opening of the second act -- which takes place three years later as George and Emily are about to be married -- is truly ominous with the orchestra's moody and suspicious sounds leading into the much brighter atmosphere of a wedding ceremony. George and Emily are center stage for this act as the back and forth discussion of fears about their lives provides the text for the most dramatic interplay between the two young people. During a flashback to a soda shop, an intimate scene of love's recognition for them both comes forward in a duet that is filled with the first signs of passion. The scene demonstrates so well Grosby's tenor voice. These two young singers were engaged, well prepared, and performed their roles with great intelligence.

But the opera began to lose its forward momentum during act three. Perhaps this has to do with the long presentation of the entrance of the "dead," or the redundant pleas for Emily not to go back to visit her previous life on her 13th birthday. This is then reiterated by the Narrator, who also seems to slow down the flow of the act. (Also, the final staging scene of the opera with the flying chairs -- although inventive and "Harry Potter" like -- didn't seem to match the mood of the opera's message.) But to the audience's great relief, Keifner stands out as Emily with dramatic intensity and musical expression. We have to admit that this is Emily's story.

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