United States Ricky Ian Gordon, A Coffin in Egypt (East Coast premiere): Opera Philadelphia, Soloists, Timothy Myers (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 15.6.2014 (BJ))
Myrtle Bledsoe: Frederica von Stade
Hunter Bledsoe: David Matranga
Elsie/Clerk: Carolyn Johnson
Jessie Lydell: Kate Bianco
Captain Lawson: Ben Sheaffer
Gospel Quartet: Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, Frank Mitchell
Leonard Foglia (director)
Riccardo Hernández (set and costume design)
Brian Nason (lighting design)
Glenna Williamson (wig and makeup design)
Elizabeth Braden (chorus master)
This, the first performance I witnessed after moving back from the Seattle area to Philadelphia in mid-May, also served as my introduction to the ingeniously redesigned season of what used to be the Opera Company of Philadelphia and now goes by the sleeker title “Opera Philadelphia.” Three full-scale productions a year in the traditional grand venue of the Academy of Music are now juxtaposed with two relatively chamber-scale presentations in the more intimate setting of the Kimmel Center’s 650-seat Perelman Theater half a block down Broad Street, making for what reports suggest is a freshly viable logistical and financial set-up for the season.
Set to a compact libretto by the production’s skillful director, Leonard Foglia, Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt (Egypt, Texas, by the way, not Egypt, Egypt) is an 80-minute chamber opera based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winner Horton Foote. It tells the story of Myrtle Bledsoe as she looks back over the ninety years of a frequently unhappy life and tries to come to terms with her varied experiences.
The 58-year-old Gordon is a well-known figure in the varied worlds of music theater, musicals, and opera. This was, however, my first encounter with his work, an experience that proved to be thoroughly enjoyable. His score draws impressively warm sonorities from an ensemble of nine players, and his vocal writing–worlds removed from the snap-crackle-pop manner of more modernistically inclined composers–is graceful, and respectful of the verbal text. I did feel that the design of the vocal line did not always respond appropriately to the rise and fall of intensity in the text, instead maintaining a more or less unchanging level of lyricism throughout. But both musically and dramatically the central role constituted a superb vehicle for the justly admired mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who is said to have been tempted out of retirement by the prospect of performing it.
On stage throughout, and entrusted with fully 90 per cent of the singing, she captured every nuance of the lead character’s mercurial changes of mood. She even convinced us of the reality of the forgiveness that eventually prevailed in her heart, a feeling that was also cleverly prepared for by the optimism implicit in the interventions of an excellent gospel quartet featured, Greek-chorus style, at various turning-points in the narrative.
Staged before the flower-bedecked backcloth of Riccardo Hernández’s simple yet luxuriant set, Foglia’s production likewise missed nothing of importance in the story or in Myrtle’s retrospective interactions with the persons–notably her late husband–who had made too much of her life a misery, and whose roles were strongly taken by the supporting cast. As to that forgiveness, by the way, it is a legitimate question (and my wife asked it as we left the theater) who exactly was being forgiven. Was it just that feckless, murderous, and inveterately philandering husband, whose memory was surely most in need of it? Was it Myrtle herself, for her own moments of weakness? Or did it have a more inclusive range over the whole spectacle of human self-indulgence and moral failure?
However those questions might be answered, A Coffin in Egypt may not be a tract for the ages, but in its modest way and thanks to its well-conceived and skillfully executed story and music it must, I think, be accounted a satisfyingly life-affirming piece of music theater.
P.S. Apologies: The difference between a flower and a tree is about as far as this citified Englishman’s knowledge of the plant world stretches. My botanical adviser tells me (the morning after this review was published) that those were not flowers. What the backcloth presented was a glowing depiction of a cotton field, obviously relevant to the racial undertones of the story.