It was recorded live during the work's New York premiere production, given at the Manhattan School in December 2001. Ward (b. 1917) has had a long, distinguished career, the highlight of which was the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded in 1962 for his opera The Crucible, after Arthur Miller's play. His musical idiom, here as elsewhere, is quite conservative tonally (he asserts in the notes that the line between opera and Broadway is becoming increasingly blurred), but he understands the effective deployment of dissonance and variety. This is best demonstrated in the last ten minutes of the hour-long piece, when an accidental meeting in Rome of two old friends -- twenty years after they first spent time there together -- results in a series of intense revelations that turn long-held assumptions upside-down for both of them. Wharton's story has a shocker of a dosing line, which librettist Roger Brunyate has preserved. The section leading up to it flits in and out of an arrestingly rhythmic 7/8 feel, unlike anything we've heard in the rest of the piece. Prior to that, the music has been unfailingly pleasant, if occasionally meandering, and the characters successfully drawn, but Ward and Brunyate have had to struggle with the fact that not much happens in the story -- the surprises begin only toward the end.
Dorothy Grimley, as Alida, has a moving aria about the clanging church bells and the unpleasant memories they bring back. The four women (two mothers and their daughters) have a beautiful quartet, an outstanding example of vocal ensemble writing. The orchestrational and vocal flights of fancy in the latter part of "They kissed our hands" (for the two girls, sung by Amy Shoremount and Eudora Brown) help us forget that the beginning is a direct lift from Cole Porter's "It's DeLovely." In all, Roman Fever is an adroit, thoughtfully expanded operatic treatment of a great story, if not a great opera in itself; there is, however, plenty to enjoy.
The continuing commitment to the production of contemporary opera by the Manhattan School is an invaluable experience for its students, who for the most part outdo themselves when given the chance to sing challenging new roles. The four young women in the cast (Erin Elizabeth Smith completes the quartet as Grace) all sing clearly and attractively; each mother/daughter pair shares a similar vocal coloring, so that similarity of sound is familial, not generational. Maxime Alvarez de Toledo divertingly rounds out the cast of five as a self-dramatizing waiter singing in Italian-accented English. The students of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Orchestra are in fine form under conductor David Gilbert.
Two old friends, Alida Slade and Grace Ansley, are finishing lunch on the terrace of a Roman restaurant and move to the parapet, where they benignly contemplate the magnificent ruins of the Palatine and the Forum. Remarking that the scene below is the most beautiful view in the world, the two ladies agree to spend the afternoon on the terrace. Alida arranges with the waiter to permit them to stay until evening. They hear their daughters, Barbara Ansley and Jenny Slade, departing to spend the afternoon with two eligible young Italian men, and Grace remarks that the young women will probably return late, flying back by moonlight from Tarquinia. It becomes evident at this point that Grace has a closer relationship with her daughter than Alida has with Jenny because Alida did not know where the girls were going. Also, Barbara remarks a bit ruefully to Jenny as the two of them depart that they are leaving their mothers with nothing much to do.
At that point, Alida broaches the