Living off the fat of the land

On Tuesday night with D to Opera Australia’s production of Of Mice and Men.

The story is one, like King Lear or (also operatically) Otello, where you know from the start things are going to end badly.

When it did, more than a few others around me cried. I managed to, but only just. That’s because, with foreknowledge of the plot (in rather general terms) and with the seething foreboding of the action as it unfolded, I had hardened my heart defensively in anticipation of the grief to come. Oddly enough, I don’t need to do that for, say, Peter Grimes which has an only marginally less dispiriting outcome (man is obliged to kill himself rather than man obliged to kill his friend – if the former really is less dispiriting) and I think that’s because in PG there is an “up” or at least a sideways before there is a “down.” Here the “up” of the dream of the farm never struck me as promising any hope, maybe because I’ve already read The Grapes of Wrath and know just a smidgin of economic history, but maybe also because of the way that the opera juxtaposes Lennie’s dreams of the farm with Curley’s wife’s dream of Hollywood.

If you imagined La Fanciulla del West, Peter Grimes and Appalachian Spring all mixed up together you’d get an idea of the opera and this production. As with OA’s recent production of La Fanciulla there was an entirely appropriate nod towards the movies. Given that Bruce Beresford is the director of this production and he is a well-known film director, that is quite understandable. The look of the production is striking. For me, Beresford went a bit far with the filmed sequence during the final interlude. “Think when we talk of horses,” says the bard “that you see [etc].” As with films made from books, sometimes you’re better off with the book (or here, the music) and the picture in your own mind’s eye. It’s not as if, as in the newsreel interlude in Lulu, there’s any complicated plot exposition to be got through.

I confess I had read Peter McCallum’s comment to much the same effect in his review, so we’ll never know if I would have reached this conclusion independently.

So far as seeing the opera of the book is concerned, Curley’s wife (who has no name) is dealt with even more roughly than she was in the book though maybe not by much (though as I read it, Steinbeck had to offer an apology for his depiction of her even then). The little wrinkle that Curley is the boss’s son is also ironed out: though a deal is struck with him that Lennie not be fired on the price of the workers telling how his hand was hurt, he otherwise gives all appearances in the opera of being the boss himself. I’m sure if I remembered the book better I’d notice other rearrangements.

When I was a high-school English teacher, the book was taught to year 10 or 11 – probably the serious literary work for the less literary stream. I’m reasonably sure I taught it, though maybe it was only being taught by colleagues and so entered into English-teacher banter. It’s just possible that I actually taught The Grapes of Wrath instead, or maybe I taught both. Certainly I had the two books mixed up and together when I was thinking about the plot on the way in.

That in turn has made me think about the literary operas we now see, and how they were first encountered by their audiences. Rarely as works previously taught by them to secondary school students, but probably often with a similar rather distant memory. I suspect the music and the entertainment drew them in, but they left with something to think about beyond those once the book was brought back into mind. Which is rather a prima la parole or prima la musica kind of question. In the scale of things I suppose that really is a “trifling problem.”

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