• For the premiere of Bernard Rands's Vincent at Indiana University's Musical Arts Center on April 8, much of the foyer was set up for an in depth preview of the work by the composer, librettist JD McClatchy, and costume designer Linda Pisano, moderated by stage director Vincent Liotta. One could not have asked for a better introduction to this production by IU's Opera Theater. This panel could not only sell a contemporary opera to a distrusting audience; they could sell a refrigerator to the Eskimos.

    The production by Barry Steele was awesome. On the three sides of the empty stage were huge gray panels. A scrim enclosed the audience's side. Upon these were projected scores of paintings by Van Gogh, creating a 3-D video "based on the world as Van Gogh saw it", according to Liotta. The set breathed with glorious beauty and intensity, constantly in motion, always changing. Just as Van Gogh was engulfed by his art, so the audience was engulfed in the bizarre beauty of his world. Little in the way of props or furniture was needed: a few paintings, a desk, a bed, appearing in the orchestral interludes.

    But what of the libretto and music? Did they support the storyline; were they strong enough not to be overwhelmed by the visuals? Rands's experience in the field of opera was limited to a single two-act opera, Belladonna, commissioned by the Aspen Festival, performed there in 1999, and not seen since. On the other hand, McClatchy's previous experience was major. A poet and literary critic, he had already written eight opera librettos, including Ned Rorem's Our Town (1966), Lowell Lieberman's Miss Lonelyhearts (2006), Lorin Maazel's 1984 (2005), and Tobias Picker's Emmeline (1996).

    For this opera McClatchy based most of his libretto on the correspondence between the artist and his brother Theo. Many quotes from the letters are quite revealing psychologically. Dramatic contrasts are the hallmarks of Van Gogh's paintings and life, and McClatchy captured the artist's life and personality, not just his despair but his transcendent art. McClatchy said, "It's a kind of double helix rather than just a downward spiral."

    The music itself is aural magic. Sometimes it delicately imitates objects or ideas like church bells or a heavenly (offstage) choir. Sometimes Rands uses delicate orchestration (harp, tambourine, bongos, and wood blocks for a dance) or strong harmonies that create a tremendous musical climax. The numerous orchestral interludes would make an effective collection, much like Benjamin Britten's 'Sea Interludes' from Peter Grimes. In fact, the vocal lines seem highly influenced by Britten, often caressing the ear, sometimes assaulting it, but never less than effective.

    In the title role, Christopher Burchett, with his handsome baritone voice and deeply moving characterization, was magnetic. The role is quite lengthy, but Burchett never faltered or tired; his final monolog was heart-rending. The only other sizable role was the painter Paul Gauguin, sung and acted with gauche panache by Adam Walton. Steven Linville flounced and bounced as a towering (!) Toulouse- Lautrec. The orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fagan, played with sonorous beauty, delicate and powerful by turns.

    The stunning climax of the opera is Van Gogh's suicide. The audience was "with Van Gogh" in that passionate wheat field, as much a part of the production as the singers or Van Gogh himself. At the sound of the single gunshot, a flock of Van Gogh-esque crows took flight (via film)-a startling sight, much like what might have been Van Gogh's last vision.

    So impressed was I by the opera and its production that I returned for a second performance. This is an opera that should be taken up by the operatic establishment. Even without the stunningly elaborate production fielded by IU, it can stand on its own. Dramatic and accessible, it is an opera from the heart to the heart.

  • Dr Nasser al Taee (
  • Tom Alvarez (examiner-com)
  • Peter Jacobi (Herald Times)
  • Benjamin Barber (Huffington Post)
  • John von Rhein (Chicago Tribune)
  • Carmen Helena Tellez (Sequenza21)
  • Lou Harry (Indianapolis Business Journal)
  • Susan Elliott (Musical America)