Fort Worth Opera
Conductor - Tyson Deaton
Director - Dean Anthony
Scenic Designer - Richard Kagey
Makeup and Wig Designer - James P. McGough
Lighting Designer - Sean Jeffries
Costume Designer - Stephen Chudej
Stage Manager - Adam Schwartz
Assistant Director - Andrew Nienaber
Repetiteur - Stephen Carey
Older Thompson - Michael Mayes
Young Thompson - David Blalock
Young Alyce - Sydney Mancasola
Older Alyce - Caroline Worra
Reviewed Performance 4/21/2013
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Viewing Fort Worth Opera's regional premier of Glory Denied was an experience akin to watching gut-wrenching films such as Schindler's List, Hotel Rwanda or Slumdog Millionaire. But in the intimate setting of the McDavid studio at the Bass Performance Hall, one may see into the eyes of the performers, hear their every breath, and be surrounded and enveloped by the harmonies and dissonances of the orchestra only a dozen or so feet away. The audience was indeed wrapped and nearly tied up by the melodic lines of the singers' arias in a ninety-minute emotional endurance test.
A question some might ask is why put one's self through it. To answer that, you may later ponder, am I glad I watched this drama? Will I view it again? Have I learned something? In these times of the senseless Boston Marathon deaths, the arts provide an avenue to vent, to understand, and to grow in compassion for all sides of an issue. With his contemporary opera based on Tom Philpott's bestselling book, composer Tom Cipullo presents both sides to a marriage held hostage by the Vietnam War. To accomplish this he created four singing roles, Jim and Alyce in younger and older versions. Mr. Cipullo takes us through the horrific events of Colonel Floyd James Thompson's capture in Vietnam in 1963, and finally his return to a different world in 1972. He was America's longest held prisoner of war.
At the opening of the opera, the small audience sat quietly waiting. Soon the four singers took us with them on a treacherous journey to a Vietnamese POW camp and later to the U.S. with its wild pop culture of 1972, complete with 8-track tapes, miniskirts and Richard Nixon as President. The stark contrast of the two worlds reminded me of the difference between the gray East and the colorful West Berlin before the 1989 Reunification.
Thompson's wife, the Young Alyce, was performed with a clean soprano by Sydney Mancasola. Her Stepford-wife like character is not written with as many layers as the other three, but depth was added when Young Alyce assumed the voice of other figures and mirrored the actions and words of others. This mirroring technique was used extensively throughout the opera and was quite effective, albeit, at times I wished for more variety.
Composer Cipullo also used the technique of characters reading aloud letters to tell the story. As each character finished a letter, they allowed it to drop to the floor. At the end the floor was riddled with papers signifying the mess their lives became as a result of war.
David Blalock played the imprisoned Young Thompson who wore the tattered striped uniform of a POW. In Mr. Blalock's most poignant scene he repeatedly sang, "I must hold the pen" as the Vietnamese guard forced Young Thompson to sign propaganda statements. We never saw the imaginary brutes who beat him but we felt each blow of the bamboo sticks as Thompson cried out in anguish. To play off of other actors and singers well is one thing, but Blalock's ability to see, imagine, and play off unseen beings was simply incredible. This imaginary aspect helped the audience to understand to an even deeper level how the prisoners had to deal with the thoughts bashing around in their heads.
Composer Cipullo does not stop with only Thompson's side of the story. He takes us through Alyce's emotional battles back in the states. Caroline Worra sang the role of the Older Alyce, with a bitter yet beautiful quality in her voice. She battled the worst type of loneliness and isolation, the one that occurs while amongst those who smile to her face and then secretly leave crank phone messages calling her a whore for beginning a new life with another man. Older Alyce cries out, "Am I expected to sit in a rocking chair and pray?" Afterwards, I spoke with Ms. Worra and thanked her for her outstanding portrayal of the emotional abuse a woman inwardly endures that most often receives no recognition, support, or acknowledgment. A single tear rolled down her cheek as I spoke. Perhaps that tear represented the sweet joy of knowing the result of one's hard work being worth it all in the end when it touches the heart of the listener.
Conductor Tyson Deaton handled the small orchestra with ease and agility, aptly pulling together the score's wild and extraordinary harmonic stretches. The major and minor sounds seamlessly reflected the story's many moods. Mr. Deaton's careful study of the work showed in how he pulled it all together to make sense. The choppy sounds in the percussion were particularly well done. They reflected the scattered and frantic moods of the tortured man and woman and the many strikes of bamboo sticks on Thompson's thin body.
James McGough's makeup on the emaciated Thompson was striking. The women's makeup worked but the hair styles didn't strongly depict the 60's and 70's. The skin tones on the two versions of Alyce stood out in an obvious way - one pale and the other quite tan. I'm not sure if that was intended or not but the skin tone of the two ladies would need to be more closely matched to be believable. The Older Thompson's look in hair and makeup matched the age of his character and more closely resembled his younger self.
Richard Kagey's simplistic stage design with two levels and several cases for the characters to pull out letters and magazines provided just enough of a feel for place without drawing attention to it. The calendar used by the Older Alyce to literally rip off days worked to great effect.
Stephen Chudej designed the apropos costumes. I especially admired the striped POW costume of the Young Thompson. The Older Thompson's conservative sweater and tie fit his personality and also the 70's era well. The doubling of Alyce's young and old costumes had a particularly strong effect. I would have liked to see the "maxiskirt" of the 70's employed to give variety and authenticity to the female costumes.
Dean Anthony's direction brilliantly melded the older and younger characters. He brought out the best of a talented troupe of singers. I was particularly thrilled to be able to understand every single word the singers sang. This is not always the case, even when opera is sung in English. No supertitles were used and they were not in the least bit necessary. I commend all the singers for their attention to diction that only stood to heighten the emotional impact of the story.
As the music whirled around me I watched the gray-haired gentleman in the front row, sitting in a wheel chair, gazing up at the commanding Older Thompson sung by Michael Mayes, a Fort Worth Opera favorite. Mr. Mayes dropped magazines around the stage from the 70's as he powerfully sang a type of list aria cataloging the many elements of the 1972 pop culture - feminism, drugs, and civil rights. Thompson tried to embrace the strange world that he'd returned to as his country again. In the end he held his head, crying "freak out" in a tortured gritty tone. This phrase, used flippantly by young people of the era, held virtual meaning to a man struggling to corral the many voices screaming in his mind. As the singer's saliva sprayed, the elderly man did not flinch. He held his ground and so did Mayes. I don't know that gentleman in the wheel chair, but I could imagine he may be a surviving veteran as well.
In yet another piercing moment during a duet between the Older Thompson and Alyce, the final phrase moved from harmony to dissonance that cut through like broken glass on a baby's bottom. Michael Mayes chose to use a straight tone rather than the operatic tone which has circles of sound. This choice reinforced the tight emotional clash intended by the composer.
Immediately following the opera the cast and creative team came out and sat for a de-briefing with the audience. During that time Michael Mayes commented that despite the emotional draining of this type of work, "I'd rather sing this opera than a hundred Don Giovanni's. The music is tremendously difficult but completely satisfying." General Director, Darren Woods, took a chance by bringing this new and rarely staged opera to Fort Worth for the Opera Unbound Series. His gamble paid off. This haunting but evocative opera was worth it and gave patrons a chance to take a walk on the wild side and experience opera in a non-traditional way.
After the performance, I chatted with a tall smiling Vietnam veteran in the audience, Ed Flaspoehler. He relayed what he termed his "funny Vietnam experience" to me. While visiting Mount Rushmore, Ed asked the tour guide wearing the Vietnam uniform beret how he might acquire one. The guide informed him that only veterans may have them. Ed told him he was indeed a Vietnam vet. The guide said, "No, you can't be a vet, you look too young and you are too happy."
Too happy to be a Vietnam vet, this is the message that Glory Denied conveyed through music and drama. The audience cried, suffered and finally witnessed both Jim and Alyce's truth and pain. Mr. Cipullo's opera allowed us to stop the denial. The honor was only delayed.
McDavid Studio at the Bass Performance Hall
4th and Calhoun Streets, Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Runs through May 11th.
Single tickets start at $87.00. Subscribers receive a discount. Former and current military may receive a 50% discount on two single tickets. Student rush tickets are available for $15.00.
For info and to purchase tickets, visit www.fwopera.org or call 817-731-0726 or 877-396-7372.