(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
Like Steinbeck’s novel, we enter Carlisle Floyd’s opera “Of Mice and Men” in the middle of things as George and Lennie flee another scandal at their previous farm.
In Austin Opera’s current production, which opened Saturday at the Long Center, Lennie (sung by Corey Bix), struggles to keep his impulses and his physical strength in check, while George (Matthew Burns), struggles to keep Lennie safe while talking out loud about how simple his life would be without Lennie in it.
As they find a new place to work, we find George, Lennie and a dozen farm hands scrambling across a handsome set that smartly evokes a bygone era while — with comically bent roadside telephone poles — simultaneously offers a slightly playful look, reminding us, perhaps that although this is history (Steinbeck based the novella on actual events), the opera is allegory.
As you might expect, this tragic novella didn’t morph into a comedy, and much of the opera’s music doubles down on the story, adding weight to a weighty tale. In this opera, written in the 1970s, moments of levity sometimes received musical melodrama out of scale with what’s on stage.
Luckily this dissonance improves — either the music drops its levels of excitability, or the audience becomes drawn into the story, with its excellent acting, vibrant choruses, and ultimately a rather gripping moral dilemma.
The chorus, led by Julian Reed, is strikingly alive — whether gathered in the bunkhouse or playing horseshoes off stage, the movements, and more importantly, the sounds of conversation, are utterly believable.
Less believable is a clunky but important scene about the fate of an old dog who contrary to plot seems to be in outstanding health, tail-wagging and all. Yet, the second dog in the show was a scene stealer on opening night, when having been stashed in a box on stage, she began squealing to be let out. Matthew Burns, perhaps improvising, came to the rescue.
An obvious worry is how to play the character of Lennie — how to bring him alive without subjugating him to cliche or some other indignity. Corey Bix dissuades all those fears with a sensitive performance that skims understatement.
Director Kristine McIntyre organizes the cast, on a couple of occasions, into poses that imitate iconic dust bowl photographs, and recognizing these is a thrill.
Eventually the music begins to help the story instead of competing with it; the short second half finds the composer grasping that less is more. An eerie emptiness echoes the story. There are some quirks here: There’s no pausing for arias and this largely takes the audience’s fondness for free-applause out of the picture. But the acting, the sense of modernity and the stunning finale are reason enough to seek out this opera.
An opera told in English, about a story most viewers are familiar with is capable of subtly changing how one sees the art form. In the end, it all comes down to George and Lennie and the performances here seal the deal.
“Of Mice & Men” continues through Jan. 31. austinopera.org