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A Coffin in Egypt
Houston Grand Opera
Range of emotions: von Stade in Gordon’s Coffin in Egypt at HGO
© Lynn Lane 2014
Frederica von Stade — coaxed from semi-retirement to star in A Coffin in Egypt, which was written for her, at Houston Grand Opera — demonstrated that at sixty-eight she can poignantly realize the role of the embittered and regretful ninety-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe. She could not, however, single-handedly save this sometimes moving but mostly meandering eighty-minute quasi-monodrama by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Leonard Foglia (seen Mar. 21, the last performance of the run).
Based on Horton Foote's play of the same name, A Coffin in Egypt — a coproduction of HGO, Opera Philadelphia and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts — follows Myrtle's reminiscences of repeated humiliation by her philandering husband, Hunter; of fleeting happiness during a trip to Europe and North Africa; and of the lost opportunities of her past (a stage career, marriage to a Sheikh, marriage to the gallant Captain Lawson). Myrtle pursued none of these and instead spent most of her life in rural Egypt, Texas, where she has outlived her husband and children and now struggles to find significance in the reminiscences of her long and painful life.
Von Stade gave life to the range of emotions in the old woman's memories. Her finely nuanced performance also revealed how Myrtle, in her sometime arrogance and pretentiousness, is not a wholly sympathetic victim. A Coffin in Egypt, however, couldn't quite cohere, because it wound its way all too slowly toward a disappointing culmination: Myrtle sees her long survival as making self-forgiveness possible, but what does she forgive herself for? That culmination is upstaged by a second denouement in which Myrtle imagines a day that she would choose to relive. This develops into a triumphant paean to the natural beauty of the vast coastal prairie where she has spent her life, but the larger result is two denouements dueling with each other, neither one of them compelling.
Gordon and Foglia's use of music is likewise dramatically muddled, even if some of it is arrestingly beautiful. The quartet of Gospel singers (Cheryl D. Clansy, soprano; Laura Elizabeth Patterson, alto; James M. Winslow, tenor; Jawan CM Jenkins, bass) at first represents Myrtle's memories in evoking African–American hymnody in a small Texas town, but that role isn't maintained musically or textually, so that the quartet's function (commenting, consoling, moralizing?) is mysterious. And for much of the performance, von Stade's singing seems to reflect the inner world of Myrtle's thoughts, because her interactions with the other characters, all speaking roles, are only spoken and not sung. But this too is abandoned, as Myrtle's nurse (actress Cecilia Duarte) appears to react vaguely to von Stade's singing later on in the opera.
In spite of these disappointments, effective details in A Coffin in Egypt contributed to a fine performance. David Matranga (Hunter Bledsoe), Carolyn Johnson (Elsie Bledsoe/Department Store Clerk) and Adam Noble (Captain Lawson) teased out different facets of Myrtle's life and captured different personae of bygone Texas. Riccardo Hernández's scenery, a few props to suggest a front porch and a curving backdrop with large cotton plants to represent the surrounding fields, was just enough to paint the Texas prairie. Against this background Brian Nason's shifting lighting pointed up Myrtle's moments of fiery rage, dark humiliation and luminous joy. Guest conductor Timothy Myers maintained a well-honed balance and blend from the small ensemble of HGO strings, winds and piano.
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