Of Mice and Men - Opera Version

Livermore Valley Opera's Compelling Production

By: - Oct 09, 2023

One of the most preeminent and prolific American opera composers, Carlisle Floyd also wrote all of his own librettos, though most were based on distinguished literary sources.  Debuted in 1970, Floyd drew on Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck for one of his most successful works, “Of Mice and Men.”  The opera hews closely to the simple plotline of the novella, which is one of America’s distinguished, if controversial literary works, locally banned on various grounds, including sex, violence, racism, and euthanasia.

Livermore Valley Opera has produced an exemplary rendering of the opera that extracts all of the heart wrenching pathos from its essence that could possibly be expected.  Each artist sings and acts in an exemplary fashion and the production values excel.

As itinerant ranch hands in California’s Central Valley during the Great Depression, two drifters arrive at another bunkhouse full of forgotten, hopeless men who deserve the empathy of those more fortunate.  George is intelligent and has aspirations, while the hulking Lennie is well-intended, but intellectually deficient.  He has a need for touch and loves to pet small, soft, furry creatures, but has a tendency to accidently kill them.  Although Lennie is a millstone whose actions create troubling situations, George has promised to take care of him and loves him like a brother.

Common with much 20th century opera, Floyd’s music is handmaiden to the drama.  The libretto follows Steinbeck’s grim narrative.  Down-home lyrics that suit the rustic characters capture the bleak subsistence of men with little to live for.  While the score offers no hummable melodies, it is interesting and easy to listen to, and some of the set pieces are intricate and involving, evoking empathy for the characters.

Matthew Pearce very much looks the part as the downtrodden but impish Lennie.  The pleasant anomaly comes when he sings with commanding dynamics that wouldn’t be expected of the character.  His powerful upper register along with lyric sonority are exquisite and foretell a big future for this young tenor.

It is Lennie’s boyish quality that appeals to the ranch foreman Curley’s wife, who brings gender relief to an otherwise all male cast.  The bored vixen is delightfully performed by Véronique Filloux, whose vocal range, mellifluousness, and easy flirtatiousness suit the role.  Her being attracted to the big huggable toy of a man will cause brutal conflict between Lennie and Curley, a small man with a Napolean complex.

While Lennie is conflicted in his own way, usually after realizing he’s done something wrong, George anticipates conflict on the horizon.  Robert Mellon offers a profound portrayal of George, singing with a dark, authoritative, and soulful baritone who bears the weight of responsibility.  He bemoans that “There’s gotta be more,” while he hopes and plans that he and Lennie can someday buy a little farm.  His wistful aria “I, me, and mine” also reveals his contradictory yearning to stand on his own rather than suffer his burden.

The content and tone in “Of Mice and Men” are crushingly downcast, but Lennie and Curley’s wife share a well-crafted and beautifully delivered duet in which they sing simultaneously of their differing dreams for a better future.  Their hopes raise the question whether having plans and dreams, even if unlikely to be fulfilled, lead to a happier existence.

All of the production elements enhance the performance.  Marc Jacobs' direction provides engaging details that many versions might lack.  The opening scene instills an ominous foreshadowing when a search party on a darkened stage waves flashlights around hunting for the protagonists.  The libretto actually assumes that the vigilantes are off stage.

Jean-François Revon’s scenic design opens up the bunkhouse, so that a claustrophobic, overly  gloomy look is avoided.  Michael Oesch’s lighting highlights and Frédéric Boulay’s video effects create visual drama with stunning panoramic projections.

One may actually wonder why, given its depressing nature, Carlisle Floyd selected this novella from all of John Steinbeck’s works to turn into a verismo-styled opera.  But for us who live in this region, it is part of our cultural heritage and this opera should be prescribed to all opera lovers.

Just to nitpick, one minor defect on opening night was that the brass in the orchestra sometimes seemed a little off timing and lacking in clarity.  Also, the two gunshots that occur were so muted that if you didn’t suspect they were coming, you might miss them.  However, these issues are miniscule.  They don’t disrupt the enjoyment of this well-produced opera with a masterful pedigree. 

“Of Mice and Men,” composed and libretto by Carlisle Floyd and based on the novella of the same name by John Steinbeck, is produced by Livermore Valley Opera and plays at Bankhead Theater, 2400 First Street, Livermore, CA through October 15, 2023.