JFKComposed by David T. Little
Libretto by Royce Vavrek
2016 Fort Worth Opera Festival
Fort Worth Opera
Conductor – Steven Osgood
Director/Set Designer – Thaddeus Strassberger
Costume Designer – Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Designer – Chad R. Jung
Wig and Makeup Designer – Steven Bryant
Assistant Director – Andrew Nienaber
Stage Manager – Gina Hays
Repetiteur – Emily Jarrell Urbanek
English Supertitle -- Royce Vavrek
Spanish Supertitle – Gabriela Lomónaco
President John F. Kennedy – Matthew Worth
Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy – Daniela Mack
Reporter – Brian Wallin
Clara Harris – Talise Trevigne
Henry Rathbone – Sean Panikkar
Rosemary Kennedy – Cree Carrico
Nikita Khrushchev – Casey Finnigan
Lyndon B. Johnson – Daniel Okulitch
Jackie Onassis – Katharine Goeldner
CHORUS OF TEXAS POLITICIANS
Billie Sol Estes – Jared Welch
Ralph Yarborough – Christopher Leach
John Connally – Brett Bade
Raymond J. Buck – Clay Thompson
Jim Wright – Johnny Salvesen
And The Texas Boys Choir
Reviewed Performance: 4/23/2016
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Although Jack and Jackie did not have a good night’s sleep according to the reenactment, I’m quite glad that I did before attending this production because one needs a clear, focused mind to follow the layers of characters in triplicate: the Greek Fates, spectral representations and modern day people. While the time span of the story covered only a half day, the constant flashbacks and dream sequences illuminated a larger span of time in the lives of our 35th president and his wife. In addition, the Greek Fate characters placed it into the whole spectrum of humanity’s existence…quite a bit for one performance to cover in two acts and a few hours’ time.
Plenty of glorification has followed these two legendary people and, also, this production—one that ironically seems to have the message that those in the proverbial spotlight are humans (behind the hype) who bear great physical and emotional pain. Debilitating back pain and grief from their infant son’s death were masterfully hidden behind their designer clothes, perfect smiles and well-crafted speeches.
The Fort Worth Opera company is to be applauded for tackling and triumphing in this grand production of a not-so-grand nightmarish slice of presidential life. Composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek teamed up to create yet another fresh work that cuts to the guts of people’s souls and hardships. The music and orchestration included no electronically amplified sounds as their “Dog Days” chamber opera did last season, but was, nonetheless, superbly effective using traditional instruments, notably percussion, with a dabbling of the unexpected—inflated bang sticks.
Often one finds one or two weak members of a cast who pull down the rest. However, there was no slack in this rope. This taut troupe of performers shone as brightly as the stars at night in Texas…once you clear the DFW smog. The two leads, Jack, baritone Matthew Worth, and Jackie, mezzo soprano Daniela Mack, were compelling in both their vocal and acting skills, a requirement for the characters well drawn by librettist Vavrek and the challenging music composed by Little. Director and set designer, Thaddeus Strassberger, can be proud of a magnificent set achieved with neon lights, replications of famous art on the walls of the hotel suite and a rotating stage.
Wrangling the many layers of this opera into a coherent and effective presentation is no small accomplishment, but the Fort Worth Company did it—a feat that might be aptly compared to successfully corralling not one longhorn, but a whole herd. The success of a world premier with this level of complexity can only be the result of a truly well-coordinated team. From the costuming (Mattie Ullrich) to the neon lights (Chad Jung) to the Spanish supertitles (Gabriela Lomónaco) —no detail was left unperfected! Even the preshow lecture, live painting by Jay Wilkinson, photo ops and after-show mezzanine gathering enhanced the premiere experience like real whipped cream tops off pecan pie. No operatic production survives without all these elements carefully aligned, and this seems to be one aspect in which the Fort Worth Opera company particularly excels year after year.
Mezzo soprano Daniela Mack brought a full bodied sound to the character of Jacqueline. Plus, she looked positively regal in her strawberry chenille suit. Her arias were polished and stunning, but I must admit that I most enjoyed the scene when she sang the trio “I have a Rendezvous” with two other strong female characters, Jacqueline Onassis (Katharine Goeldner), and Clara Harris (Talise Trevigne). As the rotating stage revolved, the three women sang with force and sadness, foreshadowing the unavoidable fate of the next day. Trevigne’s soprano had a clarity and sting that suited the maid character who reminded us of the racial inequality that America was wrestling in 1963.
Matthew Worth as Jack wooed me with his touching baritone in the scenes with his wife, but also with his sister Rosemary, mischievously sung by soprano Cree Carrico. Although Carrico portrayed a woman with a simple mind, the notes written for her were ornate and acrobatic. In her poofy green gown she bounced about and handled the intricate vocal lines with an agility that suited Rosemary’s impish nature in a dichotic way. Worth, as Jack, sweetly played the caring brother who took his mildly mentally challenged sister to the dance.
Lyndon Johnson (Daniel Okulitch) and his gussied up troupe brought a welcome sense of cowboy glitter to the melancholic production during Jack’s morphine-induced dreams. At one point the music imitated country western twang while a cheerleading squad high-kicked their way across the stage. Tall neon lights beamed “TEXAS” across the top of the stage just in case you missed that every imaginable stereotype about Texans was being trumpeted. Even the Texas boys’ choir played a commentary role with their bright red cardigans and clear-cutting tones. Not only this chorus but the general chorus was very effective in a commentary role. They appear as secret service agents, White House aides, people congregating outside of the Hotel Texas, guests at the breakfast meeting, and even Russian factory workers. Costumer Mattie Ullrich dressed them beautifully in their 60s style costumes.
I wasn’t fond of the curtain call moment wherein Lyndon took the hand of the actress who portrayed his prostitute (unnamed in the program), and paraded her out to take a bow in her skimpy black lace corset. The prostitute scene held a reasonable and acceptable place within the opera story during Johnson’s philandering, but it didn’t seem respectful to women in general to give her a singular bow in the same getup, sans perhaps a robe.
While most of the audience undoubtedly walks in to this opera knowing the outcome that followed on the grassy knoll the next day, this opera allows us to feel the weightiness of that night before. Although there were glossy moments with glittering cowboys and long-legged cheerleaders, this production still always circled back to the overall foreboding mood of this night—dark as the ashen purple skies before a tornado strikes.
Strangely though, I walked out into the warm Texas night after this long opera with a comforting feeling of validation for enduring life’s tough moments and also with a strong appreciation for the love of a couple such as Jack and Jackie.
This opera may be titled with three simple letters—JFK—but make no mistake; it renders a significant and intricate story. I expect it to have a long shelf life in the operatic world.
Fort Worth Opera Festival
Bass Performance Hall
4th and Calhoun Streets
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Final performances are Sunday, May 1st at 2:00 pm and Saturday, May 7th at 7:30 pm
Season subscriptions range from $26 to $379 while single tickets range from $17 to $195. Military receives a discount. Student rush tickets are available, with ID, 15 minutes prior to performance.
Purchase tickets online at www.fwopera.org or call 817-731-0726
(Toll Free 1.877.396.7372).