OPERA NEWS - The Ballad of Baby Doe (7/15/16), Tosca (7/16/16)
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In Review > North America

The Ballad of Baby Doe (7/15/16), Tosca (7/16/16)

Central City Opera

In Review Central City Baby Doe hdl 1016
Central City’s Baby Doe, with Youngblood and Christy
© Amanda Tipton
In Review Central City Tosca lg 1016
Mayes and Loutsion in Central City’s Tosca
© Amanda Tipton

NO OPERA SYMBOLIZES Central City Opera’s fervent support of American work more than The Ballad of Baby Doe. The Colorado summer company gave Douglas Moore’s Baby Doe its world premiere in 1956 and has gone on to revive the opera every decade since. A sixtieth-anniversary production of Baby Doe highlighted Central City’s eighty-fourth season in its historic 550-seat theater, which also included a new production of Tosca. It’s a long way from Rome to the rough-and-tumble mining town of Leadville, Colorado, but in these back-to-back performances, Central City Opera made sure the voyage was compelling. 

The enduring popularity of Moore’s historical boom-and-bust tale is not hard to understand. Baby Doe is not the weightiest of operas, but it manages to be both poignant and high-spirited, and it is shot through with an irrepressible dose of Americana. There is not a dissonant note to be heard in Moore’s unabashedly tonal, down-to-earth score with some memorable, foot-stomping ensemble numbers. 

John Latouche’s libretto is based on the scandalous affair and marriage between two of the most storied true-life figures of the American West—Colorado mining magnate Horace Tabor (1830–99) and the much younger Elizabeth (“Baby”) McCourt Doe (1854–1935). Tabor and Baby Doe lived and spent lavishly before they lost everything in the silver crash of 1893; when Horace died, in 1899, the Tabors were penniless. Baby Doe retained her husband’s faith that the silver market would rebound, living her final years in abject poverty in a shack at the Matchless Mine that had once brought them so much money.

Director Ken Cazan, a regular Central City artist, took a straightforward approach to Baby Doe. He deftly shaped the opera’s three main characters—Horace, his first wife Augusta and Baby Doe—and injected energy and movement into the crowd scenes. Cazan departed from typical productions with his recurrent references to the actual history that underlies Baby Doe, including projected archival photos of the three principals and of vintage structures in Leadville and Denver. (During the performance of July 15, minor technical glitches, including odd flickers and flashes of computer coding, made clear the pitfalls of such tech-based theatrics.) 

Other than a few set pieces such as a desk and a table and chairs, Cazan relied primarily on the projections to evoke the opera’s settings; changing images of clouds, mountains and buildings filled a rear scrim, floated across the floor and transformed hanging panels of sheer cloth that were framed on three sides. These shifting panels served at times as physical windows but more often were meant as metaphorical windows into the souls of the characters and memories of the past.   

Despite its title, the opera really revolves around Horace Tabor. Baritone Grant Youngblood, another Central City regular, captured both the bigger-than-life personality and the little-boy vulnerability of Tabor’s rags-to-riches persona. With her Maggie Smith-like facial expressions, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer could hardly have been better as Augusta, conveying the character’s steeliness and hurt in both voice and manner. Soprano Anna Christy effectively evoked the youthfulness and wide-eyed genuineness of Baby Doe. She sang with an affectingly honeyed lightness and purity, although a few of her high notes were ill-toned. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed at home in Moore’s vernacular music, and he never let the opera’s pacing ebb. 

Puccini’s Tosca is a very different kind of romantic tragedy. To stage this production (seen July 16), Central City turned to a company newcomer, German-born director Joachim Schamberger, who avoided interpretive flights of fancy and stuck to the opera’s innate drama. His only stumbles came with the scenery, which he designed. As in Baby Doe, projections were used to convey the settings, but Schamberger went even further. When Baron Scarpia lustily imagined his conquest of Floria Tosca at the end of Act I, the director added a projection of her provocatively beginning to undress—either a fascinating use of a high-tech theatrical device or the needless actualization of what probably should have remained implied. 

More problematic was the fixed semicircular backdrop—latticework panels and doors with a large wall overhead that served as the primary screen for the projections. Unlike the minor yet necessary shifts in stage configuration that Cazan achieved in Baby Doe, this arrangement in Tosca varied too little and seemed cramped. More puzzling was the use of geometric, open-framed boxes as tables and chairs—bare-bones set pieces that seemed incongruous with the otherwise opulent projections and period costumes. 

But the most important aspect of any Tosca are the singers who portray the three key characters, and all of them were more than able. Soprano Alexandra Loutsion, a 2010 Central City apprentice artist bursting with promise, offered an impassioned performance in the title role. She brought impressive power and dimension to her singing, handling the high notes and other vocal challenges with aplomb. Tenor Jonathan Burton, as Cavaradossi, displayed an obvious affinity for Puccini and made the most of the composer’s soaring passages, especially in the captivating love duet with Tosca in Act I. Baritone Michael Mayes clearly enjoyed himself as Scarpia; he has the imposing presence and vocal chops to embody the character’s villainy. Central City music director John Baril provided able support in the pit and brought out the many beauties of this score.  —Kyle MacMillan

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