Opera.broadwayworld.com

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving

Related: Houston, Houston Grand Opera, World Premiere, A Coffin in Egypt, Leonard Foglia, Ricky Ian Gordon, Frederica von Strade, Horton Foote, HGO, Chamber Opera
BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

Houston Grand Opera is presenting the World Premiere of A COFFIN IN EGYPT, a one-act chamber opera based on Horton Foote's play by the same title. Horton Foote, a celebrated playwright, wrote the influential play THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL and the well-loved film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. Known for crafting touching sentimentality and riveting drama, Horton Foote's legacy is sure to be celebrated for centuries to come. However, Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia's operatic adaptation of A COFFIN IN EGYPT browbeats audiences with nostalgic sentimentality and rarely moves us to feel anything.

Like the play, A COFFIN IN EGYPT, set in Egypt, Texas in 1980, is the story of ninety-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe making peace with her long life. She has outlived her husband, two children, and basically everyone she has ever known. Her addled memory skips, jumps, and repeats as she recollects her life, which has been filled with adultery, deception, two murders, and two World Wars. With no one left to talk to, Myrtle tells these events to Jessie Lydell, her caretaker, who passively reads a book during Myrtle's string of arias. Obviously, this is not new territory for Jessie, and by the time the roughly 76 minute opera ends, it's not new for us either.

Directing the piece, librettist Leonard Foglia brings the characters to life on stage; however, the audience never truly connects to them. The characters walk around like cardboard cutouts of archetypes we have experienced time and time again. There is the bitter old lady, Myrtle Bledsoe, who could have had a better life but denied herself of that fortune because of her loyalty to her husband. Hunter Bledsoe, Myrtle's husband, is the affluent rake who has a sexual penchant for African-American women until he turns 45, and then his tastes shift to teenaged girls. Then there is the caring and nosy Elsie, Myrtle's sister-in-law and neighbor. The silent caretaker, Jessie Lydell, the gossipy Foley's Clerk, and the handsome Captain Lawson round out the cast. Lastly, there is the four person Gospel Chorus, which foreshadows major events of the opera with lushly gothic hymn-inspired quartets.

Frederica von Stade, who came out of retirement for this role, sings and acts with passion, but her story never truly affects us. In a moment of rage, she throws down her box of paintbrushes before launching into an aria in which she laments, "I hate you Hunter" over and over. This is the only moment that the audience is truly empathetic for the character. Singing about wild flowers, her almost tryst with a Algerian sheik, her dancing with Captain Lawson, and other such events, Frederica von Stade impresses audiences with her beautiful mezzo-soprano instrument and her stamina. But as the show slowly marches towards it's climax, the beginning of every new aria, especially the last four or so, elicits sighs from the audience who is ready for her to reach the moment of clarity that is planned for Myrtle and end the show. Yet, when she does reach that moment, we feel let down that this deep soul-searching was entirely for self-forgiveness.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth
Patterson
, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins.

The most interesting vocal moments of the performance are written for the four-part Gospel Chorus, sung by soprano Cheryl D. Clansy, alto Laura Elizabeth Patterson, tenor James M. Winslow, and bass Jawan CM Jenkins. This quartet plays the ambient noise that comes from the African-American church close to Myrtle Bledsoe's home front. While they are staged to be seen by the audience, it is clear that the cast only hears them. Therefore, this chorus, much like a Greek chorus, serves to inform the audience of what is happening and what is about to happen. Their ability to harmonize, especially in minor chords, is astounding and gorgeous.

David Matranga does excellent work as Hunter Bledsoe, aging throughout Myrtle's memories. Brash and confident at all times, he creates a character that is nicely narcissistic and in tune with everything Myrtle says about him.

As Elsie and the Clerk, Carolyn Johnson creates two distinct characters that fit into the narrative well. Her Elsie cares for Myrtle, but is tormented by her son's murder of her husband. Her Clerk is deliciously gossipy.

Riccardo Hernández's Set Design is gloriously minimalist. With just a raised platform, a column, and some rocking chairs, he creates the impression of a large porch on a Texas-style cotton plantation home. Across the wavy backdrop, he has plastered a large and extremely close-up shot of a cotton field. We see the jagged, sharp-edged hulls and wispy cotton inside in full detail from our seats.

Likewise, Riccardo Hernández's Costume Design is time appropriate to each moment in the plot. Moreover, he ensures that Myrtle stands out at all times. She is draped in red, while all the other characters wear neutral, earthy tones.

The anticipation and excitement surrounding the World Premiere of A COFFIN IN EGYPT at Houston Grand Opera was extremely high. Unfortunately, despite the strong performances, the story doesn't land. It plays out on the stage, but doesn't ever jump off the stage to affect our hearts, minds, or souls. At under 80 minutes in length, A COFFIN IN EGYPT feels much longer. It doesn't bore audiences, but it simply doesn't move us either.

Running Time: Approximately 78 minutes with no intermission.

Houston Grand Opera's World Premiere of A COFFIN IN EGYPT runs in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now through March 21, 2014. The two remaining performances are Sunday, March 16 at 2:30 p.m. and Friday, March 21 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228-OPERA (6737).

Photos by Lynn Lane. Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.

high res photos

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade; Hunter, David Matranga.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Captain Lawson, Adam Noble; Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade; Elsie, Carolyn Johnson.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade; Hunter, David Matranga.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Myrtle, Frederica von Stade.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Jesse, Cecilia Duarte; Myrtle, Frederica von Stade; Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins.

BWW Reviews: Houston Grand Opera's A COFFIN IN EGYPT is Rarely Moving
Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins.

high res photos

Comment & Share

Related Links
The Washington National Opera Presents AN EVENING WITH STEPHEN COSTELLO AND AILYN PEREZ, 9/10The Washington National Opera Presents AN EVENING WITH STEPHEN COSTELLO AND AILYN PEREZ, 9/10
July 30, 2014
WNO to Present AN EVENING WITH STEPHEN COSTELLO AND AILYN PEREZ, 9/10WNO to Present AN EVENING WITH STEPHEN COSTELLO AND AILYN PEREZ, 9/10
July 29, 2014
Tickets for Opera Philadelphia's 40th Anniversary Season to Go on Sale 8/13Tickets for Opera Philadelphia's 40th Anniversary Season to Go on Sale 8/13
July 29, 2014
Capitol City Opera Company Founder Wins Lifetime Achievement AwardCapitol City Opera Company Founder Wins Lifetime Achievement Award
May 29, 2014


About Author

Subscribe to Author Alerts
David Clarke David Clarke has had a lifelong love and passion for the performing arts, and has been writing about theatre both locally and nationally for years. He joined BroadwayWorld.com running their Houston site in early 2012 and began writing as the site's official theatre recording critic in June of 2013.



BWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center FestivalBWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

Become a Fan, Follower & Subscriber

BWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center FestivalBWW Reviews: THE TSAR'S BRIDE a Heavenly Marriage with the Bolshoi Opera at Lincoln Center Festival
by Richard Sasanow