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The New York Times, May 22, 1971

Hall Overton Attempts Opera About Huck Finn


Huckleberry Finn hated the refined ways of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, who gave him a home, and he would scarcely seem to fit into the sophisticated milieu of opera. The composer Hall Overton and his co-librettist, Judah Stampfer, have made a valiant attempt to put the famous Mark Twain character onto the lyric stag without depriving him of his rebellious, American-as-apple-pie, hayseed charm.

They have partially succeeded because they understand the boy, with the surprising complexities that lie beneath his simple exterior. In the end, however, Huck and the early 19th-century Midwesterners who surround him resist the intellectualities of Mr. Overton's contemporary musical style.

"Huckleberry Finn," commissioned by the Barney Jaffin Foundation through the Juilliard School, was given its premiere by the Juilliard American Opera Center at its theater on Thursday, and it will be repeated tonight. Because of the vitality of the production, it was fascinating to see, even if it was less rewarding to the ear.

Mr. Overton went about his task with the best of intentions. To a large extent he has preserved the cadences of Twain's vernacular speech. He has frequently kept the orchestra subservient, so that the text comes through clearly. Where the vocal line is elaborate there is often apparent justification -- in the case of Miss Watson, with her high-flown notions of right and wrong, or in the case of Huck himself in his dreamier, more romantic sentiments.

There are fine whole scenes, where the score sustains the right mood. The hysterical crowds, determined to bait a black man or throwing themselves into a religious orgy, are given an ugly violence. Huck and his black friend, Jim, drifting in nocturnal solitude on the Mississippi, are wrapped in softly lyrical music. Those loveliest of con men, The King and The Duke, plan their games to a jaunty, jazzlike accompaniment, quite strikingly developed.

But the opera, whose two acts last almost three hours, has an initial hearing, long gray stretches that fail to define or illuminate adequately what is happening on the stage. The grayness comes from the stockpile of current musical usage and from a lack of melodic profile, which obviously stems from the composer's honorable ideas about setting the language.

A piece of musical Americana was not to be expected from Mr. Overton, and it probably would have been an unwise trivialization of the material. Yet it is significant that the best music is the simplest, that given to Jim, and it is the most eloquent.

The production was remarkable for its stagecraft. Douglas W. Schmidt's settings and projections were the busiest to be seen on a local opera stage since Zeffirelli's for Barber's "Antony and Cleopatra." Jeanne Button's costumes were appropriate and delightful. William Woodman got some fine acting from the singers, and Anna Sokolow choreographed the effective crowd scenes.

Given the most sympathetic role, Willard White sang beautifully as Jim. No less excellent was David Hall, who created a believable character out of Huck and sang his long part with apparent perfection. In the large cast there were strong contributions from John Seabury (Tom Sawyer), Betty Jean Rieders (Aunt Polly), Pamela Hebert (Miss Watson), Lenus Carlson (a drunkenly tumbling Pap Finn), David Wilder (The King) and William Bumstead (The Duke).

Dennis Russell Davies, a young conductor still studying at Juilliard, handled the musical end superbly. If the Juilliard Orchestra did not always play with finesse and accuracy, they did extraordinarily well with a difficult score.

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