The Metropolitan Museum of Art – American Wing; New York, February 14, 2020—The famous quilt collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing is an apt metaphor for Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s 1947 opera The Mother of Us All. The quilts are the handiwork of women, often collectively stitched-together patchworks, made up of diverse images. In most respects, the opera embraces the struggle for women’s suffrage with a cast of characters mixing both real and imagined 19th century political, popular, and symbolic figures that also include present-day sometime narrators Gertrude S. and Virgil T. Likewise, the non-linear trajectory of Stein’s typically abstract, baby simple, stingingly succinct, and cannily wise texts find a musical equivalent in Thomson. His style is a compositional melting pot inhabited by intimations of hymn tunes, military marches, cotillion waltzes, acerbic Satie-isms, and rare yet strategically placed jagged dissonances.
Bearing this in mind, the Charles Engelhard Court that leads into the American Wing would seem an appropriate venue to present this opera, at least in theory. But its atrium-like dimensions and swimmy acoustics swallow up details. The audience sits in the round, while characters enter and exit from all sides, making it difficult to keep track of who is singing and from where. And even with splendidly discreet sound design aimed to benefit singers and audience alike (abetted by video monitors where cast members could pick up on conductor Daniela Candillari’s cues), the diffuse resonance takes the edge off of Thomson’s slashing rhythms and incisive word setting. It also undermined the small instrumental ensemble’s vibrancy and precision; I had to focus extra hard in order to fully absorb Thomas Smith’s deft and supple handling of Thomson’s bravura trumpet lines.
That said, director Louisa Proske and her creative/design team made imaginative and dramatically effective use of a difficult space. The necessarily multi-leveled staging allowed no clutter nor overly busy movement, and sparse yet telling use was made of background video projections. Projections proved particularly helpful when new characters appeared on stage. Most importantly, the singers – all Juilliard students – were splendid.
Welcome and useful as the projected text was to have on two sides of the room, you still could understand the words without a score card, so to speak. I, for one, have not heard such good intonation since the New York jingle industry’s heyday. Several supporting vocalists stood out, notably William Socoloff as Daniel Webster, Chance Jonas-O’Toole as Jo the Loiterer, and Deborah Love as Constance Fletcher.
Yet Felicia Moore in the lead role of Susan B. Anthony unquestionably dominated, purely on account of her extraordinary voice, with its seamless registers, equally powerful and plangent high and low notes, and authoritative projection at every dynamic level. Perhaps Moore’s stately, majestic portrayal transforms her character into a remote goddess rather than the determined coalition builder and activist, but that’s like complaining that Niagara Falls has too much water
Given the opera’s subject matter, there are stretches of text that resonate with contemporary relevance. For Susan B.’s quasi-aria about male politicians, Gertrude Stein wrote, “They fear women. They fear each other. They fear their neighbor. They fear other countries. And then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other.” Immediately following the opera’s last note, we see a projected 1820-2020 timeline. Three male VIPs in top hats remain on stage. In a split second they stomp on and crush a ballot box; a devastating gesture to remind us not to take our hard-won voting rights for granted. Nor our democracy.