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Home > Arts > REVIEW: <em>Harmony</em> Plunges Into the Ives of Summer (Seagle Festival/Schroon Lake, NY)

REVIEW: Harmony Plunges Into the Ives of Summer (Seagle Festival/Schroon Lake, NY)

Victoria Erickson (as Harmony Twitchell), Joel Clemens (as Charles Ives), and Jake Goz (as Dr. David Twitchell) in the Seagle Festival’s premiere of Harmony by Robert Carl & Russell Banks.

How does the oldest summer singer training program in the country respond to a pandemic? When you’re the Seagle Festival – a 106-year-old program in scenic Schoon Lake, New York – the answer is “very cautiously” in terms of safety, and “very audaciously” in terms of programming. And so it is that, last night, the Seagle Festival opened a sold-out world premiere – and live – performance of Harmony, an opera about the groundbreaking American composer Charles Ives.

It didn’t have to be this way. Indeed, most summer singer training programs are either taking the year off or running partially or fully virtual. Just two months ago, the Seagle Festival (formerly the Seagle Music Colony, and rebranded this past year in part to reflect its accelerating focus on new opera development) was planning on only livestreaming its performances. Yes, the staff and emerging artists had already gone through their own testing and isolation periods before beginning rehearsals, but at the start of May, only about a third of New York State’s population was fully vaccinated.

On June 13, New York State hit the 50% fully vaccinated threshold. The next day, the Seagle Festival sent out an email: they were selling live, in-person tickets to festival performances. Patrons had to be masked in-doors and show either proof of full vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test, but if that gave anyone pause, the box office didn’t show it. In a pandemic silver-lining, an extra sixty or so patrons purchased livestreaming tickets for opening night to join in on the sold-out show.

Harmony, with a score by Robert Carl and libretto by Russell Banks, tells the story of composer Charles Ives and his courtship of the fittingly named Harmony Twichell. Ives is often called the most unique of American composers, a distinction that might seem patronizing if he was not also so influential on generations of later composers. Carl’s score has more than a few nods to Charles Ives’ musical innovations, especially in terms of harmonies and repetitive devices.

Banks’s libretto also has more than a few nods to topics local and topical. The opera being set in the Adirondack Mountains, there are plenty of references to local tropes and geography, many of them amusing. Banks has also worked in more than a few suggestions about works that the young Ives (the opera catches him at roughly 23 – on the cusp of his most productive period) has yet to compose. There are even throwaway jokes about American transcendentalism, which produced a fair number of chuckles from the audience at the premiere.

The dramatis personae of Harmony includes Charles Ives (baritone Joel Clemens, in an excellent performance as the tormented artist), his fiancée Harmony Twitchell (soprano Victoria Erickson), his best friend Dr. David Twitchell (tenor Jake Goz), Samuel Clemens (better known by his pen name Mark Twain, played by tenor Timothy Lupia), plus assorted family members. At curtain’s rise, Ives is poised to marry Harmony, pending one obstacle: gaining the approval of her father the Reverend Joseph Twitchell (bass Robert Feng). The good reverend delegates this gatekeeping task to the long-time family friend Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, who is, problematically, rather bitter about romance after a number of deaths in the family.

The Twichell family (plus aspiring son-in-law) in Harmony.

Saying too much about the plot would be spoiling, but suffice it to say that much of Harmony‘s tension revolves around a self-sacrificing decision that would make the poet of a 19th-century song cycle proud and angsty. The opera has the general feel of a 19th-century music drama: as a play set to music, replete with musically set monologues and characters announcing their intentions. It is, however, much shorter than its stylistic forebears: the complete drama unfolds and resolves in roughly two hours interrupted by a 15-minute intermission. Jokes and sly references are sprinkled through the work to keep things from getting too, too serious for too long.

One thing that Harmony does not have in abundance are distinct arias – while there are several extended ariosos, only one full-on aria unfolds, sung by Clemens/Twain at the climax of the second act. Timothy Lupia’s moving performance caused the audience to erupt with applause mid-scene, and the writing makes you wish that Carl and Banks had worked more such moments into the score.

The aging Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (Timothy Lupia) is tormented by memories of his late wife Livy Clemens (mezzo soprano Julia Powers) in Harmony.

If arias are in short supply, short musical morsels are in abundance. Characters frequently race in to exclaim their interjections with petite ariosos; several short and catchy songs are also given to the ensemble. One of the more entertaining songs appears twice, the second time in a memorable performance when Joel Clemens’ Ives mocks Lupia’s Samuel Clemens’ earlier, jocular “advice”. 

The instrumental part of the performance was delivered by collaborative pianist Neill Campbell, tackling a complex score. Aesthetically, the opera often leans towards “tell, not show”, which many of the performances render unnecessary. There is no need to explain the palpable “best buddies” vibe between Jake Goz’s Dr. David Twitchell and his college classmate Ives, although the Yale song could stand to be longer. Neither is there need to exposit quite so much on the clear chemistry between Victoria Erickson’s Harmony and Joel Clemens’ Ives, when the performers supply it so ably. When Clemens/Ives announces a tragic decision, you feel the weight come crashing down, and when Erickson/Harmony decides to apply her full resources to fight, you sympathize fully.

As an opera, Harmony is in its technical respects slightly old-fashioned, but the details of the story are more modern in their outline. If you are a fan of the music of Charles Ives, it has some extra gems, but this familiarity is not required. It’s well worth a drive up from Long Island to beautiful Schroon Lake, New York to hear Victoria Erickson and Joel Clemens battle for their love, with some strong supporting performances thrown in.

The company of Harmony (minus one ghost). L-R: Robert Feng, Megan Fleischmann, Victoria Erickson, Joel Clemens, Timothy Lupia, Emily Cottam, Jake Goz. Not pictured: Julia Powers.

Did You Know?

  • Charles Ives’ personal papers, including many of his letters to Harmony, are preserved at Yale University.
  • In addition to being a composer, Ives was a very successful – and famous – life insurance salesman and executive.
  • Ives stopped composing in 1926; the works that premiered in the last decades of his life were all composed prior to this date (although some were revised to various extents).
  • Today, royalties from Ives’ music are wholly dedicated to funding prizes administered by the American Academy of Arts.

Harmony returns August 20 to the Seagle Festival in Schroon Lake, NY.

Basil Considine