Review: An Opera Reaches the American Dream’s Brooding Heart

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Review: An Opera Reaches the American Dream’s Brooding Heart

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Michael Slattery as Miles Zegner in “Proving Up,” holding the window that is central to the spooky plot.CreditCreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

A tense and creepy journey into the heart of Manifest Destiny’s darkness, the opera “Proving Up” instructs us, teeth clenched, that the American dream eludes even — especially — those who give everything to gain it.

Composed by Missy Mazzoli, with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, the brooding work had its New York premiere on Wednesday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University. While it’s well worth hearing, there’s just one more performance, on Friday evening, and it’s nearly sold out.

But this is hardly the last we’ll be hearing from Ms. Mazzoli. Recently, the Metropolitan Opera announced that she and Jeanine Tesori would be the first female composers it would commission. (It’s about time.) For Ms. Mazzoli, that means two new operas: a mainstage spectacle, likely based on the George Saunders novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” and a chamber piece to be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“Proving Up” is on a chamber scale: a running time of less than 90 minutes, an orchestra of about a dozen, seven people onstage, no chorus. It turns that intimacy into grim claustrophobia.

Based on a Karen Russell story that in turn owes a debt to the apocalyptic Westerns of Cormac McCarthy, the opera riffs on a detail of American history. The Homestead Act of 1862 — by which settlers, mainly west of the Mississippi River, could acquire public land they’d farmed, or “prove up” — contained an odd provision: To be considered for the land grant, the homesteads, among other requirements, had to include a glass window.

“Proving Up” takes that tiny footnote and enlarges it into horror and heartbreak. The Zegner family, which has settled on the brutal, drought-ridden Nebraska plains a few years after the Homestead Act’s passage, is struggling for survival, but has managed to acquire a window. There’s a rumor that a government inspector has arrived in the area to approve the land grants. As a bit of frontier generosity, the Zegners send their younger son to share the window — only for the duration of the inspection, of course — with a nearby homestead that lacks one.

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From left: Talise Trevigne, Cree Carrico and Abigail Nims as a mother on the Nebraska plains and the ghosts of her two daughters.CreditMichelle V. Agins/The New York Times

As in her 2016 opera “Breaking the Waves,” Ms. Mazzoli conjures bleakness with an uncanny, confident mixture of instrumental savagery and eerie lightness, as when a moody orchestral storm recedes into the glassy drone of harmonicas. (Glassiness is, unsurprisingly, a quality of much of the score.) The shadowy sound of guitars drifts through the music; Ms. Mazzoli’s chaotic refractions of hoedown fiddling occasionally explode within a landscape of jittery unease. Sudden drooping slides and players sawing away at their string instruments, punctuated by the somberly shuddering twang of horn and trumpet, give a sense of wandering and rootlessness.

The balance of the elemental and ethereal is present in the vocal lines, too, especially for Miles, the son chosen for the fatal errand. The tenor Michael Slattery, alternately raw and pure, is persuasively childlike without mugging; John Moore and Talise Trevigne, as his parents, rise to more mature passions, their desperation and hurt plain. Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico sinuously chatter as the ghosts of their two daughters, dead on the prairie. (Yes, this is a ghost story, too.)

The director James Darrah sets the desolate tale amid unpainted wood and a stage-filling plot of soil. When “Proving Up” was presented at Opera Omaha in April, after having its premiere at Washington National Opera in January, the playing space was a catwalk, with the audience on either side, for an experience that must have been unsettlingly immersive.

Even at the Miller, a traditional proscenium theater, the opera insinuates itself under the skin. The story is set entirely in the past, but its depiction of the stubborn delusions that fueled American expansionism — and the ways in which “proving up” comes to mean both having a home and being a virile man — feels entirely current.

Least successful is the portrayal of the mysterious, malignant stranger, a kind of angel of death, who dominates the final chunk of the opera. A figure of infinite threat in Ms. Russell’s story — you’re reminded of Judge Holden from Mr. McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian” — he is, as played by Andrew Harris in the opera, a grumpily stentorian, all-too-real presence.

He makes less impact as an onstage character than he did as a quasi-fantastical force in prose. Opera is generally good at taking naturalistic, even workaday, subject matter and heightening it into stylization; this last part of “Proving Up” does the opposite — to, I think, its detriment. If the sequences with the Sodbuster, as the opera dubs him, retain spooky force, it’s largely because of Mr. Slattery’s Miles, whose fear is underplayed and feels very real.

But Ms. Mazzoli and Mr. Vavrek’s final tweak to Ms. Russell’s story, suggesting the initiation — or, perhaps, continuation — of a cycle of resentment and retributive violence, is a chilling touch. If anxieties about possession and manliness continue to fray our national life, “Proving Up” proposes that here our troubles began.

Proving Up
Friday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, Manhattan; millertheatre.com.

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