> Opera and Oratorio
Mancasola, Worra; Blalock, Mayes; Fort Worth Opera Festival Chamber Ensemble, Deaton. English text. Albany Records TROY 1433
Composer Tom Cipullo makes it clear right away that he'll be jumping back and forth in time in order to tell his gripping story. "It didn't matter what I did," intones Older Thompson (Michael Mayes); he is followed immediately by his counterpart Younger Thompson (David Blalock), who sings, "It doesn't matter what I do." Both characters represent the real-life Colonel Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the Vietnam veteran who was the longest held (1964–73) prisoner of war in American history. The non-linear libretto is Cipullo's adaptation of Tom Philpott's 2001 oral history of the same title, based on extensive interviews with Thompson (who died in 2002) and more than 160 others. According to the composer, virtually all of the opera's text is taken straight from statements made by the actual people involved. Thompson's wife, Alyce, is also depicted in younger and older versions, representing both Jim's idealized vision of her during his captivity and the Alyce who actually survived the long ordeal.
In the first of two "Tableaux," Thompson's scenes of brutal interrogation and physical torment are interrupted by shafts of vocal radiance in the form of letters from Younger Alyce back home. Always beginning with "My darling," these are sunny, Coplandesque interludes, provided by soprano Sydney Mancasola, optimistically spinning scenes of domestic fortitude. The stateside reality was more complicated, as we learn later from Older Alyce (Caroline Worra), who begins by starkly declaiming the contents of a governmental form letter declaring her husband MIA. The contrast between Mancasola's sweet, soaring voice and Worra's equally flexible but duskier, fleshier soprano further highlights the contrast between fantasy and reality. In her wide-ranging aria, "He went through Hell, but so did I," Worra deploys acting and musical chops in equally impressive measure, building a persuasive defense for her painful choices.
Despite a predominantly and appropriately edgy harmonic language (and the repeated use of a whip sound in the instrumentation), the music for the most part stops short of outright brutality and manages to focus on vocal lyricism even amid threats and punishment. Even when the score becomes acerbic and the scenario ghastly ("I was put in a horizontal cage, not big enough to sit up in or lie down"), Cipullo is careful with his dissonances; he forces us to confront reality unflinchingly, then uses his powerful musical arsenal not to mitigate the horror but to turn it into art. He also avoids the trap that many contemporary operas with prose librettos fall into: somehow Glory Denied never meanders, dramatically or musically.
Possibly more disturbing even than Thompson's captivity and torture is his breakdown when he returns home to find that the new landscape is completely alien to him. And Cipullo offers no final redemption: when Thompson tenderly offers Alyce forgiveness for starting a new life with someone else, she hisses, "I don't give a shit whether you forgive me or not. What have I done that calls for forgiveness?"
Obviously, the themes and conflicts of Thompson's story constitute drama of the highest order, and Cipullo — a shrewd dramaturge as well as a compelling composer — gives magnificent expression to the tragic story. Tenor David Blalock is appealingly brash and defiant in the face of the unspeakable. Michael Mayes, as Older Thompson, sings with a heroic baritone that magnifies his suffering when appropriate, but he never resorts to self-pity, no matter how great his physical or psychic suffering. It's strong stuff, to be sure, but the piece is continuously absorbing and musically rewarding. Another solid component of this first-rate recording is the remarkably full-sounding nine-piece instrumental ensemble, which gives a bravura performance under the effective leadership of conductor Tyson Deaton.
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