Robert Ashley – Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) 2xCD (LCD 5002)
Like John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is an allegory for an individual’s self-realization. The opera takes its imagery from the history of the Jews –beginning with their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and ending 500 years later in the United States. Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) was first conceived as a recording for Nonesuch Records (1991). Ashley followed with three other operas, making up a quartet or tetralogy under the name Now Eleanor’s Idea (LCD 1009CD), and all four operas were performed often during the first half of the 1990s.
The opera was revived in 2018-19, with a new cast: Gelsey Bell as Linda; Brian McCorkle as Don, Mr. Payne, and Companion; Paul Pinto as Junior, Jr.; Aliza Simons as Now Eleanor; Dave Ruder as The Doctor; Amirtha Kidambi as Mr. Payne’s Mother; Robert Ashley (on tape) as Narrator I; Amirtha Kidambi and Aliza Simons as Narrator II. Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) was presented by the Kitchen, February 7th through 16th, 2019. Live Sound and Processing: Tom Hamilton. Live cast recording by Eric Sherman and Tom Hamilton. CD mixed by Tom Hamilton.
“Improvement is engrossing because Ashley was one of the finest American prose writers of the 20th century and his writing was made thrilling Thursday night by the beauty of the performance. These new artists incorporate Ashley wholly in their musical experience, taking the work beyond the objective presentation of the opera’s means, style, and form. Thursday night they were as characterful and plainly human as one will experience on the opera stage. Gelsey Bell was exceptional, the warm glow of her voice a colorful contrast with Ashley’s pleasantly parched midwestern twang. She expressed vocally Linda’s mix of befuddlement and optimism, her sense that her own life is a mystery — and through some imperceptible means she outlined Linda’s aging while always sounding the same. Hamilton’s digital reconstruction of the original audio was superb, true to the source material and with the subtlety Ashley requires, while also having ample open space, depth, and vividness. He was just as much a member of the ensemble as the artists on stage, and just as vital to the human feeling that grew throughout the performance to a gentle but moving coda at the end of the evening.” —George Grella, New York Classical Review, February 8, 2019