Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up is an 80 minute opera consisting of a prologue, six scenes and an epilogue. The libretto is by Royce Vavrek after a short story by Karen Russell. It was recorded after a production at Opera Omaha in 2018. One might perhaps expect an opera about homesteading in Nebraska to be a worthy piece of uplifting Americana but nothing could be further from the truth here. The Prologue, it’s true, is based on a 19th century popular song Uncle Sam’s Farm which appears to offer the American Dream to all comers but after that we get a surrealistic tale of drought, despair, drinking and death all based on the search for an elusive glass window that will allow the Zegner family to “prove up” and gain title to their land under the 1862 Homestead Act. What then, of the American Dream?
The libretto is very clever and full of ambiguity. The horror reveals itself gradually as we realize that several of the characters are dead (or, at least, not alive) and little is what it seems to be. The elusive window, for example, seems to function at times as a way of viewing an alternative reality as well, at others, of simply being a needed, but rare, object. The libretto is also quite poetic. It uses repetition effectively and provides several welcome ensemble numbers. The music is interesting and quite unusual too. It’s often spookily atmospheric with other passages having a kind of driving energy reminiscent of John Adams. It effectively combines tonal and less tonal passages with electronics while mixing in some unexpected elements like fiddle tunes and some baroque touches. The result is a sophisticated blend of words and music that is a long way away from the “words first” approach of many contemporary American operas which sound like prosey recitative declaimed over a movie soundtrack. Even so, every word here is clearly audible and I found myself resorting to the printed libretto very rarely.
The performance is strongly sung with fine, powerful, performances from baritone John Moore and soprano Talise Trevigne as the elder Zegners with a more lyrical contribution from tenor Michael Slattery as their son Miles. Abigail Nims and Cree Carrico, as the dead Zegner sisters, get weirder as the piece progresses to good effect. Bass Andrew Harris is highly atmospheric and a bit sinister as the enigmatic Sodbuster. The International Contemporary Ensemble plays the complex score with considerable skill and conductor Christopher Rountree blends voices and the instrumental ensemble to fine effect.
The recording, which was made at Ware House Productions in Omaha, Nebraska, is clear and well balanced. It’s available for purchase as a physical CD or in various digital formats as well as on the usual streaming services.
Proving Up is a somewhat unusual and very welcome addition to the contemporary opera repertoire and this CD recording does it full justice.
Catalogue number: Pentatone – PTC 5186 754
This review first appeared in print in the Summer 2021 edition of Opera Canada.