Believe in our God. Believe in our country."
Those aren't the only words from Scott Wheeler's new opera Democracy: An American Comedy, with a contemporary ring.
Although set during the days when Ulysses S. Grant was president, this work, about ambition, corruption, hypocrisy and religious zeal in the nation's capital, has one foot very much in our own time. (There's even a reference to voting irregularities.)
That often biting resonance turned out to be the most effective element in the premiere performance Friday night at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
Commissioned by Washington National Opera, Democracy looked on paper like a winner. Wheeler, new to opera, has a proven track record as a composer. The libretto, based on novels by Henry Adams, is by noted playwright Romulus Linney. And having John Pascoe as designer and director assured classy production values.
The plot centers on two colorful, strong-willed women - rich, widowed Madeleine Lee, pursued and intrigued by Senator Raitcliffe; men's clothes-wearing photographer Esther Dudley, pursued and intrigued by a Rev. Hazard.
Like Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, the work mixes weighty issues of political scandal and moral puffery with bon mots. "When my husband died," Mrs. Lee sings, "in my grief I took desperate measures. I read philosophy in German, and nothing is more desperate than that." Explaining her father's aversion to church-going, Esther explains: "He says it gives him un-Christian feelings."
But for all of the libretto's humor, the music rarely laughs.
Aside from some cute twittering to go with the character of a pushy lobbyist, and a charming touch of humming used by the would-be lovers, the music leaves a dry taste. Even a Fledermaus-like salute to champagne falls flat.
Wheeler sticks mostly to scattershot melodic lines and a cool, almost neo-expressionist harmonic language.
Then again, a lot of the text doesn't lend itself to song. Two examples: Mrs. Lee's "Have you ever heard of the Albermarle Steamship Company?" And Raitcliffe, commenting on the Bulgarian diplomat who serves as the work's narrator and chief cynic: "He is also an acknowledged sodomite."
Still, Wheeler's orchestration, with its Stravinsky-ish rhythmic snap and tightly meshed woodwinds that bubble up a la Benjamin Britten, is often striking.
No reservations about the quality of the performance.
Keri Alkema was a standout as Mrs. Lee, rich in voice, incisive in gesture. Amanda Squitieri was the engaing Esther. Lee Poulis (Raitcliffe) and Matthew Wolff (Rev. Hazard) sang sturdily and articulated their character's questionably convictions, well, convincingly.
Robert Baker had quite a romp as the snide Bulgarian. Ample-toned William Parcher was the spittin' image of President Grant. Members of the George Washington University Chamber Choir filled out the stage nicely. And the whole cast offered exemplary diction, all too rare a quality when operas are sung in English.
Anne Manson conducted surely, sensitively, drawing a strong response from the Youth Orchestra of the Americas.
Pascoe's cinematically paced direction, elegant sets and period costumes, strikingly lit by Jeff Bruckerhoff, gave Democracy a visual vote of confidence.