Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Hefty Main Course at Livermore Opera’s “Of Mice and Men”

by Jeff Dunn

Suffocated puppies, broken necked strumpets, agitated posse flashlights blinding the audience—people could easily fault Of Mice and Men for being too melodramatic.

But do they know they are also disparaging the meat and potatoes of opera? Carlisle Floyd’s gripping adaptation of Steinbeck’s famous novella offers a heavy dish of steak-and-spuds emotion, and a crew of uneasy ranch hands as a bonus. Moreover, the opera is couched in a near-perfect set of production values from the creative teams at Livermore Valley Opera.

To begin my multi-course menu of praise, try the superlative performance of tenor Matthew Pearce as the mentally challenged Lennie. He has mastered the character’s physical behaviors and childlike mental condition, but best of all, unlike some of the others who have faced the part’s musical difficulties, he hits his several high notes like hot butter melting into the toast of Floyd’s phrases. Baritone Robert Mellon, as George, Lennie’s companion and minder, clears the air with vocal authority–all suffused with a nervous anxiety appropriate to knowing the potential damage Lennie can cause with his inhuman strength.

Overseer Curley’s nasty disposition and cock-of-the-walk power parades are strikingly portrayed by tenor Chad Somers’ spot-on reedy voice and balletic body movements. Curley’s unhappy and lustful wife is not treated kindly by Floyd’s music, yet coloratura Véronique Filloux deftly negotiated her often see-saw extremes of lyricism.

Baritone Matthew Worth offered his sympathetic voice to the role of Slim; bass Kirk Eichelberger excelled as a maimed farm worker trapped in a box-canyon life; and the rest of the ranch hands under chorus master Bruce Olstad added societal weight to the proceedings. Superb acting in all quarters was directed by Marc Jacobs. Conductor Alexander Katzman deftly handled Floyd’s constant metric changes in the score, a reduced but mostly effective orchestration by Jim Meduitz.

…a near-perfect set of production values…

Rather than refer specifically to the Depression-era’s mass migrations, Jean-François Revon’s set, video, and tech team were absolutely top-notch in creating a rural California ambiance of summer oaky hills, rivers, barns, and woods. Not only were there large collections of background projections, but also animation effects of moving stars, suns and moons. The moon in the last scene was scaringly reminiscent of the last scene of Berg’s Wozzeck.

Steinbeck’s drama and pathos might be hard to take for some, but the story about the human need for companionship and something to call one’s own is a verity worth everyone’s revisiting. The issue of what right we have over others’ lives is also paramount in this work. Floyd’s music is up to the task in mirroring the explosive emotions and events in his unflaggingly concise libretto.

In a 2011 interview, he opined that a libretto is 60% or more of what makes an opera successful. I certainly agree in the case of Of Mice and Men: its music does not have the melodic or harmonic immediacy that will bring audiences back for many repeat visits. Artists who must live with an opera to bring it to life find ways to make sense of lyric lines, and end up praising the effectiveness of melodies that even sophisticated audience members will never hear on first, second, or even third hearings.

Floyd’s music is more like a film score that enhances emotive moments. These moments are so compelling in this opera–especially in this superbly crafted and executed production–that attendees should treasure their exposure to Floyd’s aesthetic, even if the meat and potatoes are mostly in the libretto, and the score is an impossible burger.


ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionOf Mice and Men
Story byJohn Steinbeck
DirectorMarc Jacobs
Producing CompanyLivermore Opera
Production DatesThru Oct 15th
Production AddressThe Bankhead Theater
2400 First St, Livermore, CA 94551
Telephone(925) 373-6800
Tickets$20 - $105
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!