Glory Denied
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In Review > North America

Glory Denied

NEW YORK CITY
Chelsea Opera
11/12/15

NO QUESTION GLORY DENIED is full of good intentions. Tom Cipullo’s 2007 chamber opera—based on the life history of Jim Thompson, an army colonel who became the U.S.’s longest-held prisoner of war when he spent nine years in a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp—asks its audience to consider the devastating impact of warfare; Chelsea Opera’s two-performance revival, seen November 12, fell right after Veteran’s Day, and served as a reminder of the valor of our armed forces. But for all of the work’s noble sentiments, in this outing, staged at St. Peter’s Church by Chelsea Opera’s cofounder Lynne Hayden-Findlay, it did not even remotely succeed as music theater. 

Glory Denied might more properly be called a cantata rather than an opera. Rather than fashioning a straightforward narrative out of Thompson’s life, Cipullo has created a series of commentaries on its key elements. These are assigned to four characters—or rather, two, subdivided: younger and older versions of Thompson and his wife Alyce. The first of the work’s two acts, mainly treating Thompson’s time as a prisoner, was essentially unintelligible in the Chelsea Opera performance—quite literally so, since very little of the text came across. The four singers spent much of the time in dissonant concert, the harshness of the harmonies giving a general sense of the horror of Thompson’s situation, but otherwise offering little illumination of the dramatic moment.

Act II at least provided some solo opportunities, but their impact was negligible. Older Thompson, railing against the changes in American society during his Rip Van Winkle-esque absence, sang a glib, show-off-y patter song that seemed quite at odds with what we knew about the character; its inclusion marked a failure of authorial discipline. Older Alyce’s welcome-home aria to her husband had some touching moments, but even here, Cipullo’s frequent recourse to sustained notes as an expressive intensifier courted both musical and dramatic monotony. At no point in either act did Glory Denied achieve the emotional immediacy that the subject matter demands.

Peter Kendall Clark was Older Thompson, his baritone ringing out handsomely in its upper reaches; less so down below. He pulled faces to indicate the soldier’s torment. Brandon Snook had more success with the smaller role of Younger Thompson, relying on his clear, crisp tenor as his chief expressive instrument. Both women were saddled with hideous wigs that served as coarse cultural signifiers. A Sandra Dee flip hairdo turned Younger Alyce into a camp joke, made more feeble by the toothpaste grin the soprano used to signal the character’s oblivious complacency. Martha Guth as Older Alice overcame her afro-style wig to maintain a modicum of dignity. In quieter moments, she displayed a pleasingly mid-weight soprano with a trace of darkness. But the role mostly consists of loud declamation; too often we heard Guth’s voice in extremis. It cannot have been easy to coordinate the efforts of the ten instrumentalists spread out in front of the church’s pulpit, but conductor Carmine Aufiero elicited tight ensemble from his forces.  —Fred Cohn 

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