CINCINNATI — Brett Dean’s tumultuous adaptation of “Hamlet” played at the Metropolitan Opera two months ago, but it is still ringing in my ears.
Almost literally: It is a loud, chaotic score, mustering warring batteries of percussion and audience-encircling electronic effects, complex polyrhythms and virtuosic extended techniques. In all these qualities, it stands for a large swath of contemporary operas (some good, some bad) defined by being overwhelming. They are hurricanes of shock-and-awe sound, anarchic and bewildering.
The music of Gregory Spears — whose sensitive “Castor and Patience” was commissioned by Cincinnati Opera and premiered here on Thursday evening — is the opposite.
Warm, steady, restrained, securely tonal, the orchestras in his works tend to serenely repeat small cells of material, without strange instruments or strange uses of conventional ones.
So self-effacing is Spears’s style that the somber drone at the beginning of this new piece emerges without pause from the ensemble’s tuning, as if by accident. The overall effect is of a smoothly unfurling carpet — reminiscent of Philip Glass in its unhurried yet wrenching harmonic progressions — atop which voices soar.
And soar, and soar. The agonies and pleasures of “Castor and Patience,” running through July 30 at the Corbett Theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, are like those of a less densely orchestrated Puccini. As in “Tosca,” “La Bohème” or “Madama Butterfly,” unabashedly, even shamelessly effusive vocal lines draw us poignantly close to characters in a rending situation: here, a Black family riven by disagreement over whether to sell part of a precious plot of land.
Precious, because purchased with hard-won freedom. The action takes place on an unnamed island off the coast of the American South that was settled by former slaves after the Civil War. Among their descendants, Castor left and moved north with his parents; his cousin, Patience, stayed put with hers.
Decades later, both are adults with children of their own. It is 2008, and Castor — like so many people in the years leading up to the Great Recession — has borrowed far beyond his means. The only way he sees out of financial ruin is to return to the island and sell part of his inherited stake, likely to a white buyer intent on building seaside condos; that is an outcome that the tradition-minded Patience cannot abide.
It is a battle between old ways and new, past and future, leaving and staying, overseen by the ghosts of ancestors and the lasting reverberations of their oppression. (“Living means remembering,” as one character sings.) This narrative ground is familiar — gentrification versus preservation, with echoes of “A Raisin in the Sun” — and it could have been simply overwrought.
But Tracy K. Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former poet laureate, has produced a libretto as unshowy as Spears’s score. An original story rather than one of the transformations of existing material that currently clog the opera world, her text is largely prose, and never purple; modest arias arise naturally out of the dialogue. Inflamed by aching music — the orchestra of 38 is conducted with calm confidence by Kazem Abdullah — the result is passionate, but also clear, focused and humble.
Spears’s two most prominent earlier operas were both accomplished. “Paul’s Case” (2013), based on a Willa Cather story about a restless, dandyish young man, had the pertly stylized formality of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” That neoclassical (even neo-medieval) feel extended to the more naturalistic “Fellow Travelers” (2016), set amid the anti-gay witch hunts of the McCarthy era. But the lyricism that was tautly, almost unbearably heightened in “Paul’s Case” felt a bit repetitive and listless over the broader canvas that followed.
Six years in the making — and two years after the pandemic forced the cancellation of its planned premiere, in honor of Cincinnati Opera’s centennial — “Castor and Patience” is more intense yet more relaxed than either of those. “Paul’s Case” was 80 minutes long, “Fellow Travelers” an hour and 50. The new opera is more than half an hour past that, but it feels less protracted than unhurried, unruffled. You get to know the characters, and to sit with them.
That these figures are so vivid is also thanks to a committed cast, led by the baritone Reginald Smith Jr., an anguished Castor, and the soprano Talise Trevigne, delicate but potent as the implacable Patience.
Singing with mellow power, the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano brought humanity and nuance to Castor’s wife, Celeste, who starts the opera pressuring him to sell but ends up in as much agonized ambivalence as anyone. Raven McMillon and, especially, Frederick Ballentine, bristled — convincing teenagers — as their daughter and son, Ruthie and Judah. Patience’s children, West (Benjamin Taylor) and Wilhelmina (Victoria Okafor), were gentle but stirring guides to the satisfactions of island and family life.
Their outpourings are so fervent, the melodies so sweet, that you can find yourself moved nearly to tears by more or less random lines — an accomplishment both impressive and, sometimes, overkill, particularly in the first act. But by the second act, the tension inexorably rising, resistance to a work so openhearted, tender and plain-spoken seems futile. If it’s emotionally manipulative — in the distinguished tradition of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Carlisle Floyd — it’s expertly so.
Vita Tzykun’s set stretches the facade of a house across the stage, but leaves the bottom half jagged and cut off, revealing the beams of the foundation and marshy grasses. This is a dreamy netherworld in which characters from the 1860s and 1960s mingle with the 21st century. Kevin Newbury’s production uses some furniture and a few suggestions of shacks to conjure a range of locations on the island. If it’s not entirely evocative — with projections that tend to be murky — it’s at least efficient and straightforward.
As are the mechanics of the plot. The conflicts here are as sturdily old-fashioned as in an Arthur Miller play — but, as in Miller’s work, they knot your stomach anyway. Probably unlike the version of this libretto he would have written, however, true tragedy does not strike in Spears and Smith’s telling. Everyone is alive at the end.
And the secret that gets revealed near that point isn’t quite a barnburner. But it does offer the real explanation for why Castor’s parents went north — a telling reminder that migrations aren’t just abstract sociological phenomena, but also happen family by family, for individual reasons.
There isn’t a clear resolution to the plot. In the last scene we see Castor, Celeste and Ruthie on the ferry back to the mainland. (Judah has decided to stay.) The implication seems to be that they’ll be back on the island for good before too long, but we can’t be sure. In a final aria — an oasis of expressive, elegant poetry from Smith, after so much expository prose — Patience dismisses the possibility of choosing either past or future. We’re always in between.
For all the ambiguous peace this ending offers, a bitter undercurrent tugs: In America, especially Black America, ownership is fundamentally tenuous. You can never run fast enough or far enough to escape the forces determined to dispossess you, or worse: “Sometimes I feel like something’s trying to erase me,” Castor sings. If he does eventually return to Patience’s island, it’ll be a homecoming, but also an admission of defeat — for a man and a country.
“What more,” the opera asks in its quiet final moments, “must I give away before I get free?”
Castor and Patience
Through July 30 at the Corbett Theater at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Cincinnati; cincinnatiopera.org.