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'Diaries' has some very fine passages

Arthur Crew Inman poured 17 million words into his 155-volume diary. In "The Inman Diaries," premiered on Friday by Intermezzo Opera, composer Thomas Oboe Lee and librettist Jesse Martin seek to portray the man, but never quite square his logorrhea with opera's penchant for reading between the lines. With that many words, is there any room left for music to say what they can't?

The diary's abridged publication in 1985 confirmed Inman as one of literature's great obsessive eccentrics. He spent most of his life ensconced in a darkened Back Bay apartment, renting the surrounding flats to eliminate noise. Stories of everyday people hired to come talk to him filled the failed poet's journals; such visits frequently ended as sexual encounters, with the knowledge of his long-suffering wife, Evelyn. He shot himself in 1963.

The opera unfolds in self-contained scenes, juxtaposed snapshots rather than progressive revelations; Lee underscores each with repeated patterns that support a sort of heightened recitative, hewing closely to the natural cadence of speech. It puts the text in relief, but Martin's libretto, much of it drawn from Inman's writing, is prosaic and talky instead of lyrical, better suited to speaking than singing. And all the characters share similar melodic and rhythmic contours; perhaps it's meant to reflect their appropriation into Inman's diaristic voice, but it dampens any conflict.

Evelyn (mezzo-soprano Gale Fuller, whose voice bloomed as the evening went on) has an affair with Cyrus Pike, Inman's longtime doctor (Intermezzo founder John Whittlesey, ardently dignified), but the tension is ameliorated by Pike's devotion to his patient, an unlikely friendship that's more postulated than portrayed. Many of Inman's less benign opinions - his admiration for Hitler, his rabid hatred of FDR, his race prejudice - are related by other characters, mitigating shock with distance and, sometimes, comedy.

His womanizing is presented as a foible, not a compulsion; with each female caller, the music turns Hollywood suave, an initially delicious touch that eventually seems too genial. Veteran tenor Ray Bauwens, making his Intermezzo debut as Inman, was indefatigably entertaining, but the character's droll embrace of both his visitors and his own indignant petulance belie the demons of a man driven into darkness and isolation.

Intermezzo is an invaluable champion of new opera: "The Inman Diaries" is its sixth premiere in five seasons. And there are some fine things in the work. Lee coaxes some rich sounds from the seven-piece orchestra (conducted with sturdy clarity by James Busby); he has a flair for gently tipping simple, triadic folk- and hymn-like harmonies into the more melancholy opulence of classic American popular song.

The text-setting is superb, every word distinct. Andrew Ryker's clean, unobtrusive staging keeps the drama in focus. And Intermezzo has recruited a solid cast of local talent. Particularly notable was tenor Jason McStoots as Inman's sometime handyman Billy - his second-act duet with Bauwens, the two reading Billy's farewell letter to Inman, was the musical high point. But it's indicative that the letter's gratitude is surprising, given what little we've seen of their relationship.

Most crucially, we never feel Inman's extraordinary self-seclusion, the formidable barriers he erected between himself and the world. The music sympathetically smooths the rough edges - it blunts the disquieting power of the diaries, the awkward torrent of Inman's language pulling you farther into his closed world than you really wanted to go.

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Intermezzo Opera

James Busby, conductor

At: Tower Auditorium Theater, Massachusetts College of Art, Friday

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