New Opera Documents a Sober Era in American History

United StatesUnited States Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce, Fellow Travelers: Cincinnati Opera, Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center for the Arts, Cincinnati, OH. 19.6.2016. (RDA)

fellow travellers Philip Groshong Cincinnati Opera
Joseph Lattanzi in Fellow Travelers
(c) Philip Groshong/Cincinnati Opera

Soloists: Aaron Blake, tenor; Joseph Lattanzi, baritone, with Devon Guthrie, soprano; Alexandra Schoeny, soprano; Talya Lieberman, soprano; Paul Scholten, baritone; Vernon Hartman, baritone; Marcus DeLoach, baritone; Christian Pursell, bass-baritone.

Technical: Kevin Newbury, director; Mark Gibson, conductor; Vita Tzykun, scenic design; Paul Carey, costumes; Thomas C. Hase, lighting; James Geier, makeup and wigs.

Fellow Travelers tells the story of Timothy Laughlin, a recent arrival in the Washington, D.C. of the 1950’s, a time and place in which Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchman, the closeted homosexual attorney Roy Cohn, led a virulent campaign against homosexuals and lesbians in the United States government. The complex and secretive relationship that developed between Laughlin and his lover and State Department official Hawkins Fuller, is the central subject of this opera. There are neither heroes nor villains, but only victims and victimizers of a dysfunctional system.

Contemporary operas do not thrive in a system in which the works of the 19th century reign supreme in America’s opera houses. This superb musical drama is cause for celebration, especially in the first-class world premiere, a result of the ongoing collaboration between the Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

Playwright and dramaturge Greg Pierce has flawlessly adapted the Thomas Mallon‘s novel of the same title into a riveting libretto, succinct in verbiage, utterly clear in narrative, and rich in dramatic power.

Gregory Spears’ astonishingly beautiful music is an equal partner, soaring at key moments into arioso passages that underscore intense soliloquies, or at other times, settling down into extended conversations that seamlessly blend into set pieces for ensembles, for the role of Mary, and for the two central characters. The text is beautifully set and the music never obscures it, but emphasizes it with careful repetition of key statements, often in florid melismas.

In a long-overdue debut with the company, Mark Gibson conducted magisterially and was always attentive to the players, and supportive of the singers. Kevin Newbury’s directorial hand encouraged the kind of realistically earnest acting that one seldom encounters in opera these days. His gaze is huge and his inspired directorial choices ever informed by logic. Vita Tzykun’s chameleonic, flexible and minimalist set, Paul Carey’s spot-on costumes, Thomas C. Hase’s poetic lighting, and James Geier’s period-perfect makeup and wigs, all contribute immensely to Newbury’s vision.

In the central role of Hawkins Fuller, a State Department operative with a secret life, baritone Joseph Lattanzi delivers a career-making performance. With a creamy lyric baritone and matinee idol looks, the young singer provides a calm foil to his partners in this story of love and betrayal.

Aaron Blake, as the boyish Timothy Laughlin, is convincing and ultimately heartbreaking as a lapsed Catholic and closeted homosexual trying to survive the “Lavender Scare,” unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy at a time when, for government workers, “the love that dares not speak its name” was equated with the potential for treason. Blake’s delivery of the ‘church aria’ (“Last night how many sins…how many?”) showed his plangent tenor at its best, limitlessly soaring—and in an eerie whisper for the words “Last night I died. I died.”

Soprano Devon Guthrie is most impressive vocally and dramatically in the role of the compassionate Mary Johnson. And playing nearly a dozen roles between them, Alexandra Schoeny, Talya Lieberman, Vernon Hartman, Paul Scholten, Marcus DeLoach, and Christian Pursell provided sturdy vocalism and convincing acting, while functioning as a Greek chorus that spies, comments, and helps change the sets onstage for the multiple locales.

More than telling a powerful story about human casualties in a soulless Washington, where people languish in a chilling mid-century grayness, the opera provides a cautionary tale about the potential inherent in all of us to label, persecute, and crush any sort of love that deviates from our norms. Fellow Travelers warns us all about the evils of a half-a-century ago—evils that can easily rear up their ugliness after lying dormant for a while, as recent tragic events have shown.

Rafael de Acha


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