|Eizabeth Bouk, Angela Dinkelman, Maestro William Remmers, Jack Anderson White, and Julia Snowden|
We rarely enjoy an operatic performance without taking notes but (note this!) we were so absorbed in the story and the performances last night that we did not. Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe is 60 years old but its resonance is quite contemporary. Beverly Sills sang the lead with New York City Opera and later the role was taken by Faith Esham and Elizabeth Futral. We understand that it has been often performed around the United States but we had never seen it until last night when Utopia Opera gave it an admirable production.
John Latouche's libretto limns a story that strikes several chords with us Americans. The history of the West, for one thing, with its saloons and dance hall girls, is a favorite theme; even Puccini grabbed onto that with his Fanciulla del West. The rise and fall of tycoons is another favorite theme, as is the defiance of societal norms. All these are present in the tale of Horace Tabor who, with the help of his wife (the boss' daughter), clawed and schemed his way to the top of the social heap in late 19th c. Colorado.
Augusta had been a fine helpmeet but when Mr. Tabor heard "Baby" Doe sing "The Willow Song", he was smitten (as were we) and left his loyal wife. The scandal led to social ostracism but their love endured until his death. Because of the United States switching from the silver standard to the gold standard, he died impoverished, a broken man.
It is a tribute to some mighty fine performances that we were left caring about all the characters. Angela Dinkelman's soaring soprano took her from a woman of questionable repute in Act I, through to the devoted wife who cradled her dying husband at the conclusion. In the interim, she is pampered with riches--but she unquestioningly relinquishes them when her husband's poor judgment bankrupts him. We could tell from her vocal coloration that she was a good person and not a hussy.
As the improvident Horace Tabor, Jack Anderson White's manly baritone clarified how he could attract two such exceptional women. His chemistry with Baby Doe was powerful and their duets contained harmonies redolent of their attraction and ultimately of their mutual love. As Baby Doe tells her mother (the excellent and believable Julia Snowden), her first husband was never the love of her life. Tabor was.
Elizabeth Bouk's rich mezzo was a fine counterpart to Ms. Dinkelman's high-flying soprano. Her Augusta grew from the sharp bitterness of a rejected wife to the softer compassion she felt for Tabor when fate turned against him. She had tried but failed during their marriage to get him to be more circumspect and conservative, but her primness was not to his liking.
In this day and age, two people falling for each other and divorcing their spouses to be together would scarcely raise eyebrows, but in the late 19th c., where this story took place (and yes, it is based on real historical figures) there was scandal aplenty, and plenty of encouragement toward vengeance from Augusta's female friends. But this impressive figure took the high road and we felt great sympathy for her when she became old and sick.
There is also the interesting feature of primly dressed women assuming a high-brow stance at the "Opry House" in Leadville which was built by Tabor himself. Notably, the husbands preferred to hang out in the saloon with the dancing girls!
In grand opera tradition, there would be a huge cast and elaborate scenes of the wedding, the ball, the political rally, etc. But the modest resources of Utopia Opera served them well, allowing the intimate drama to unfold and touch our hearts. Indeed, most of the arias are private contemplations and reminiscences. We are privy to the characters' innermost feelings and this allows us to empathize in a way we cannot in a large theater with scene-stealing sets.
Another feature of a small company is that each member gets to perform in several roles. Limitations of space prevent us from crediting the dozens of superb performers who collaborated to make this opera the success that it was.
Gary Slavin's astute direction kept the story moving along successfully.
Under the baton of Maestro William Remmers, the orchestra gave Douglas Moore's music a lot of pizazz. A half dozen strings were bowed on the floor level, whilst 13 winds squeezed onto one side of the stage. We had no problem with the balance and enjoyed the accessible (and happily non-academic) music. Tyler Mashek handled the percussion and Levi Vutipadorn manned the keyboard. No complaints on that account!
Readers may wonder why we have not complained about the English in which it was written. We were surprised at how well John Latouche's writing reflected American speech patterns and the pleasing vocal lines that resulted. It is unfortunate that this was the sole collaboration of Moore and Latouche. If only more contemporary operas could learn from this one.
It is also due to the fine English diction that we were absolved from reading the titles, which were helpful mainly when Ms. Dinkelmann's voice reached the stratosphere.
The stage was bare, except for a few chairs that were multi-purposed. Costuming was sourced from the performers own closets and assembled with imagination. We did not feel at all disturbed by the lack of authenticity to the period. When push comes to shove, we are mostly interested in musical and dramatic validity.
We understand that Utopia's June production will be Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin....in Russian. Is there nothing Maestro Remmers will not tackle? We doubt it. Perhaps The Ring Cycle?
Stay tuned to learn which operas won the Audience Choice competition for next year. We have been sworn to secrecy and we NEVER EVER leak. Well, hardly ever!
(c) meche kroop