Arts & Culture » Theater

Heaven on Earth

Opera Theatre of St. Louis premieres a homegrown epiphany, Loss of Eden


Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write -- I just saw an opera that wasn't long enough. It was the world premier of Cary John Franklin's Loss of Eden, without a doubt the crowning achievement of Opera Theatre of St. Louis' 2002 schedule.

Loss of Eden is a brisk, emotional opera that clocks in well under two hours.

In that time two couples fall in love, marry, have children and become principals in what both the crime of the century and the trial of the century. One character is murdered and another is executed. At the end both couples' lives are in tatters and a full third of the audience is in tears. Whew!

Almost five years ago Charles MacKay, the general director of OTSL, commissioned composer Franklin and writer Michael Patrick Albano to collaborate on a new opera. "We knew it would take characters of mythic size to withstand the glare of an opera's spotlight, " Albano said recently. They found them in America's first media celebrity couple, aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, best selling author Anne Morrow. Opera heroes need a nemesis. The Lindberghs' was immigrant carpenter turned small-time hustler, Bruno Hauptmann, who kidnapped and murdered their baby.

Franklin and Albano produced a fine opera about ambition that spins out of control and ends in tragedy. Ambitious Lindbergh tells his writer wife (it's opera, so he sings), "I want to do the kinds of things writers write about." Ambitious Hauptmann has come to America to get rich. "(Soon)... no one will laugh at me because my shoes are cheap," he sings to his wife. Lindbergh's ambition drove him to risk his life in the transatlantic flight that made him the rich, famous consort of Morrow, daughter of a wealthy and powerful politician. All of which, ironically, put him in the spotlight that made his son Hauptmann's target.

This is a new opera, but the music is not of the scary, dissonant modern variety. Most of it is dramatic and pretty. "I'm a tonal composer. That's my language and I'm comfortable in it, "Franklin declared in a pre-performance discussion. He's been the chorus master at OTSL for 15 years. During that time Franklin's been steeped in opera history and achieved intimacy with the tricks of the great composers whose music he's taught here. He admits to copping a rhythmic device from Verdi and acknowledges the influences of Benjamin Britten and his teacher Dominick Argento. I hear a lot of Gershwin in the score to Loss of Eden, too.

While he doesn't take many musical risks, Franklin does sample from everyone's plate to create the mood of the 1930s. He underlines the conflict between modern Bruno and his very traditional wife by juxtaposing an old German folk song and a Kurt Weil-style fox-trot at their wedding. At the Lindbergh's wedding a trio is sung in the vibratoless "radio style" of '30s pop-jazz singers, the Boswell Sisters. Franklin calls it " ...a deconstructed Charleston."

While Albano's pithy, almost epigrammatic libretto offers no traditional arias, the four main characters do plenty of singing. Each has moments of reflection that float through the show like little thought balloons. The couples get several lovely duets. In a deeply moving trio, the Lindberghs and Anna Hauptmann sing a verse from an Emily Dickinson poem. The musical high point of the evening is a stunningly beautiful octet sung by a crowd of cops, reporters and family retainers at an overwhelmed Mrs. Lindbergh as they question her about the kidnapping.

All four main singers perform wonderfully, but Ann Panagulias, as Mrs. Hauptmann, steals the show. A top-notch singer and an even better actress, her extraordinary talent imbues her character with rich humanity and pathos.

The staging is crisp. Most scenes last only four or five minutes. The lighting and costumes go from light to heavy as the tragedy deepens. The orchestra is sharp.

If only it had lasted longer.

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