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BWW Review: High Art in Small Places, Part II - Von Stade's Bountiful Trip to EGYPT at American Songbook

Mezzo Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe.
Photo: © Kevin Yatarola

Lincoln Center's American Songbook series doesn't usually cross the road to opera-land, but I'm glad it did, when it presented the Ricky Ian Gordon-Leonard Foglia chamber opera A COFFIN IN EGYPT with mezzo extraordinaire Frederica von Stade last week. Performed in Jazz at Lincoln Center's tiny Appel Room, EGYPT brought us up close and personal to von Stade--and her alter-ego here, 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe--and proved she still has "it" as a performer.

A famous Cherubino (NOZZE DI FIGARO), Octavian (ROSENKAVALIER)) and Rosina (BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA) in her career, but also experienced in more contemporary works like Jake Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING and Susa's DANGEROUS LIAISONS, von Stade retired from the opera stage four years ago. She decided to "unretire" when the Houston Grand Opera, Opera Philadelphia and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts commissioned this piece from composer Gordon, with a libretto by Foglia based on a Horton Foote play of the same name. (Foglia also directed.)

The gospel quartet: Malorie Casimir, Chantelle Grant,
Terrence Chin-Loy and Justin Hopkins.
Photo: © Kevin Yatarola

The chamber work premiered two years ago in Houston and von Stade has taken it to several major cities around the country. It showcases the singer's still beautiful voice and ability to make you care about the main character of the piece, Myrtle Bledsoe, a 90-year-old widow and the last living member of her family, despite her unpleasant nature.

As the piece unfolds, Myrtle reflects on the highs and (mostly) lows of her life in Egypt, Texas--her bad marriage, her useless children, her flights from Egypt as she tries to put some fun in her life and more. But "Queen Lear" she's not: She's a survivor, all right, but to what end? That's my real quibble with the piece: Myrtle doesn't seem very interesting, but merely regretful.

The shifting moods and styles of Gordon's score, conducted with a sure hand by Timothy Myers, is very American in feeling and mostly tonal in nature (with a tad of that "American Songbook" feel). It came vividly alive through von Stade's considerable skills (and the accompaniment of the Mannes American Composers Ensemble), her plangent mezzo still in remarkable shape (though the performance is miked). There are no traditional arias, but von Stade's voice, soaring and turning reflective, clearly put forth her frustrations, loneliness and (very occasional) joy. Von Stade's acting is quite remarkable as well: She seemed so frail when she arrived on stage that I was shocked by her needing an extra hand for support and bearing down on her cane; I was relieved when she threw it away in a flashback scene and began to dance (choreographed by Keturah Stickann).

Von Stade did her best to make Bledsoe interesting dramatically, but there isn't much for her to hang her hat on--certainly not from the other characters in the piece, which consist of her husband (David Matranga), her daughter (Carolyn Johnson) and a suitor (Ben Shaeffer), all of whom have little to say and nothing to sing. (As her companion, Isabel Keating lent a firm hand but, I believe, didn't even have a line.) Coming out best was the gospel quartet--the excellent Malorie Casimir, Chantelle Grant, Terrence Chin-Loy and Justin Hopkins--whose rousing hymnal music was a choice part of the evening.

Whether this 90-minute work--really a monodrama, despite the presence of a few other people in the cast--has "it" remains to be seen, once it's put into less skillful hands. But for now, with von Stade in the driver's seat, it kept us rapt and glad we took the trip.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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