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In Review > North America

La Bohème (4/20/13), The Daughter of the Regiment (5/5/13), Ariadne auf Naxos (5/4/13), Glory Denied (4/21/13)

Fort Worth Opera

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Worra and Mancasola in Glory Denied
© Ellen Appel 2013

Fort Worth Opera's annual spring festival — presented this year in late April and early May — succeeded, often brilliantly, on many fronts. The energetic company offered three works from the standard repertory — La BohèmeThe Daughter of the Regiment (in English) and Ariadne auf Naxos — plus the regional premiere of Tom Cipullo's 2007 chamber opera Glory Denied, presented as part of the company's ongoing commitment to new work.

Glory Denied (seen Apr. 21) is, musically at least, neither easy nor tuneful. Dramatically, however, it is tense, nervous and gripping theater. Based on the story of Colonel Jim Thompson, America's longest-held prisoner of war (Vietnam, 1964–73), the two-character opera is scored for four singers — two men for the young and the mature Jim, and a female pair for his wife, Alyce. The work has received several earlier productions. Here, in the McDavid Studio adjacent to Fort Worth's Bass Hall, it registered as both intimate in its presentation (minimal sets and costumes and a nine-musician ensemble) and epic in its scope and effect. Directed by Dean Anthony, conducted by Tyson Deaton, the ninety-minute piece, performed in two "tableaux" without an intermission, is a series of monologues and duets. Each member of the cast goes over the gripping details of Thompson's captivity and release and the effect of his disappearance on his wife and four children back in Massachusetts.

Because we constantly move back and forth between past and present times, and because so many particulars are repeated — like so many leitmotifs — the audience has the double advantage of not missing anything and of having the story hammered into its collective consciousness. The music, like the story, has the edge of a Greek tragedy: historical circumstance holds both characters within its grip. Neither right nor wrong exists. Believing her husband to be dead, Alyce has taken up with another man, in order to provide for her survival, only to be shocked when Jim returns. He says he will forgive her and wishes to start over. She says she has nothing to be forgiven for. He leaves. The show ends as it began: the now civilian Jim curls up in a fetal position, as if back in his caged solitary confinement, repeating his mantra, "One day at a time." There is no way out.

Michael Mayes (the older Jim) and Caroline Worra (the older Alyce) were musically as well as dramatically biting. Worra looked like an overripe Kathleen Turner and sang with passion, sorrow and bitterness, describing hopes that have turned to nervous depression and finally rage. In the second tableau, extended individual "arias" take over. Alyce says to her husband, "Jim, we have to talk…. There's something I have to tell you." Jim's big setpiece is a catalogue aria of the changes in American life since his departure. Think of a Gilbert and Sullivan whirl-a-gig patter song amped up, rap-inflected, on drugs. He has missed so much. He realizes "I can't catch up," in a world where everything has changed so rapidly — "Japanese cars, topless bars." And on it goes.

As the younger couple — Alyce, a glowing, pretty wife and mother, and Jim, a handsome soldier trapped in a POW camp — Sydney Mancasola and David Blalock sang with sweet fervor. The Cipullo score might have shaken a conservative Fort Worth audience, but its intensity, combined with its tender and romantic moments, was well suited to the complex and shifting emotions of the story. From hope to despair, from love to hatred to forgiveness, the dramatic tension was relentless. The tragedy of the Vietnam War and the roiling decade back home forever changed the family values professed by these innocent young marrieds, for whom nothing could ever be the same.

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D unleavy and Panikkar in La Bohème
© Ellen Appel 2013

The three other operas in the Fort Worth season were presented on the main stage of the charming Bass Hall to very enthusiastic audiences. On opening night of La Bohème (Apr. 20), conductor Joe Illick handled Puccini's music well, after a shaky opening at breakneck speed, which had the singers struggling to catch up. The youthful cast, under David Lefkowich's direction, sang and acted with the requisite hormonal vigor, spirited humor and tear-evoking pathos. Mary Dunleavy's Mimì put one in mind of the young Mirella Freni, and Sean Panikkar made a virile Rodolfo, with ardent tones to match his matinée-idol appearance. Their Act III duet would have turned the hardest stone to mush. Wes Mason — no slouch in the department of good looks — was passionate, jealous and tender by turns as Marcello. His Musetta, Rosa Betancourt, had a lovely legato and gave a snappy, brassy delivery of her show-stopping waltz.

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Castle, Pine and Portillo in The Daughter of the Regiment
© Ellen Appel 2013

The other two operas this season involved broad humor, dramatic high jinks and some spectacular singing. Dorothy Danner's staging of Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment (seen May 5), conducted by Christopher Larkin, allowed local favorite Ava Pine, a singing actress with superb legato and high notes (though they strayed sharp occasionally), to prance and frolic with the boys of the twenty-first regiment, who looked and acted like a combination of the Keystone Cops and the policemen in The Pirates of Penzance. The audience went wild over the very broad strokes of the production's humor. There was lots of slapstick and farce, little delicacy. No one minded. Pine — a gamine with terrific coloratura — had the vocal and dramatic chops to play Marie as both tomboy and youthful, love-struck maiden. Fort Worth Opera general manager Darren K. Woods, an impresario with a strong local following, did a star turn as Hortensius. He was well matched by the Marquise de Berkenfield of veteran Joyce Castle, who wielded a strong contralto-ish mezzo and impeccable dramatic timing. Rod Nelman was a touching Sulpice. As Tonio, David Portillo nailed all the high Cs in his Act I aria (here called "Yes, it is true I am a soldier") and held the last one longer, for good measure. His vocal delivery joined silver sweetness and lyric power.

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Fort Worth Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos, with Luna, Owens and Eddy
© Ellen Appel 2013

The season's potentially riskiest choice was Ariadne auf Naxos (seen May 4), a much less production-proof work than Bohème and Daughter of the RegimentAriadne requires delicacy, lightness and high-serious Romantic power in the staging, singing and orchestral playing. In David Gately's staging, a coproduction with Utah Symphony/Utah Opera, Vancouver Opera and Arizona Opera, the opera came off astonishingly well. Illick had some difficulty keeping the orchestra together at the start (the music sounded more Johann than Richard Strauss), but everything eventually worked out. As Bacchus, Corey Bix was costumed in a pleated toga for a Grade B sword-and-sandal film; his voice was penetrating but not especially sweet. Marjorie Owens made a haughty Prima Donna in Act I and a very persuasive Ariadne in Act II. She delivered "Ein Schönes war" in full voice, never shrill, both heroically and tenderly. She clipped her voice and faltered a bit in "Sie atmet leicht" but then regained her power. "Es gibt ein Reich" allowed her to deepen into her rich lower range.

The commedia dell'arte players were superb, both individually and as a group. Steven Eddy was a Harlekin who could walk on stilts and sing at the same time. The three nymphs — Jeni Houser, Amanda Robie and Corrie Donovan — sang and acted with finesse and charm. Best of all, Audrey Luna turned Zerbinetta into a full-blooded character with soubrette allure, athleticism and worldly wisdom. Luna executed her difficult vocal turns effortlessly. Her vocal fireworks proved the perfect fizzy antidote to the Romantic lushness of Ariadne's swooning love music. spacer


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