When Aaron Copland’s sole opera, The Tender Land, was first staged by the New York City Opera in 1954, it was criticised for being weak on plot and characterisation. But watching this MadCow Theatre Company production, presented here as part of the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn 2009 festival in which twenty-six companies perform new and neglected operas, I can only assume that the original cast can’t have been up to much.

For whilst on paper the characters might seem clichéd and sketchily drawn, this production proved how much they can really be brought to life.

To be sure, though The Tender Land, directed here by Katherine Hare, deserves to be better known than it is, the plot alone will ensure that no major opera house gives it a second glance.

Set in the American Midwest in 1934, it explores the coming of age of Laurie Moss, a girl from a poor farming community. However, by exploring her sexual awakening and the entire history of her ‘captivity’ on the farm by focusing on the one day that precedes her graduation, it feels like Ibsen taken to extremes and hardly generates a scintillating pace.

But the superb performances on offer revealed just how much there was to the characters, and how each could be interpreted as either innocent or sinister. Played by Graham Lawder-Stone, Grandpa Moss’s distrust of young men around Laurie might simply have reflected his inability to accept his granddaughter was growing up, but there was something more ominous in the extent to which he would not let Laurie venture out and find happiness for herself. Similarly, in the case of the two travelling farm hands, Top (Anthony Flaum) and Martin (David O’Mahony), we never discovered if their reported jail terms resulted from youthful exuberance or something far more serious.

The best singing of the evening came from Amy Casteldine’s Laurie whose effective Midwest accent aided some powerful top notes, and Natasha Dobie who as Ma Moss gave a heartfelt rendition of the nostalgic ‘Long time ago’.

The orchestra was ably led by the show’s musical director, Leigh Thompson, and musically I was struck by the stylistic similarities between The Tender Land and Sondheim’s work. This piece is not quite as accomplished as most of Sondheim's later output, and rather more unrelenting (only the beginning and end feature spoken dialogue). Nevertheless, with the libretto by Horace Everett, there seemed something very familiar in the way that many songs developed a specific point that drove the drama forward, but also encapsulated the entire history that surrounded the relevant character or idea.

I cannot promise that every evening at Grimeborn 2009 will be as pleasurable as this one, but I would certainly imagine that there are many more gems, both old and new, to be discovered over the remainder of the festival.

The Grimeborn 2009 festival continues at the Arcola Theatre until 5 September 2009. Further details can be found at www.arcolatheatre.com

- Sam Smith