BWW Reviews: Opera Philadelphia's A COFFIN IN EGYPT -- Von Stade is Wonderful, But It's Otherwise Mummified
It was the lyricist WS Gilbert who informed us that "Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream." Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has given us the operatic version of Horton Foote's A COFFIN IN EGYPT, with libretto by Leonard Foglia (who also directs), a vehicle created to lure everyone's favorite mezzo, Frederica von Stade, out of retirement. As a reason to see and to hear von Stade, it needs no further excuse for existence; however, to call it opera, or to call it great, would be to disguise the skim milk as cream. It's a short (80 minutes) one-act musicale of some sort, not exactly opera but not exactly musical theatre; perhaps it is a tragic operetta.
Von Stade plays Myrtle Bledsoe, a woman of a certain age, and with, perhaps, a certain reputation. That von Stade is now 69, and came out of retirement to sing the ninety-year-old Myrtle - the production is all but a one-voice piece - is a blessing for those who love her, and even more so for those who may never have heard her before, as now is their opportunity. While she is not at her prime, neither is Myrtle, and von Stade in her comeback-of-sorts is more than most opera singers ever will be. The richness of her voice is still extraordinary.
A COFFIN IN EGYPT, a joint commission of Houston Grand Opera, the Wallis Annenberg Center, and Opera Philadelphia, is not a triumph. It is slight, and it is lacking. It is, however, as entertaining as Foote's original monologue from 1980 of the small-town Texan elder stateswoman and her marital and personal woes, if one isn't looking for a masterpiece. Among its drawbacks, however, is the "gospel chorus" of four singers who are singing African-American church hymns. Perhaps. Why perhaps? Because one will rarely hear a performance of such things with less soul than could be found here. The alleged gospel music might well have been a continual bel canto drone of "Abide With Me." If the purpose is to interrupt and to contrast with Myrtle's monologic recollections of the past, a less bel canto, more enthusiastic rendition of gospel music would be much more appropriate as well as more entertaining to listeners. Here, other than for Myrtle to voice her own Negro problem, they seem to serve no purpose - at least not a musical one. To enforce operatic vocalizing because the piece is allegedly operatic is to force this sort of music to be something that it isn't.
David Matranga as Hunter Bledsoe, Myrtle's faithless and hapless, but very rich, late spouse appears in her flashbacks to her rocky marriage; Hunter is now dead, but manages to pack multiple flagrant adulteries, murder, and nearly everything but domestic violence into his life with Myrtle. His role is not musical - it is the addition of the spoken, not sung, that helps place this supposed chamber opera more firmly in the camp of operetta to this reviewer's mind. Matranga handles his part neatly, aging along with the years Myrtle describes. He dies, however, as does everyone and everything around Myrtle, who finds ways to blame herself for the faults of others.
The only fault one can find, however, listening to Myrtle's tale, is that when she escaped the confines of small-town Egypt, Texas, to visit New York, Paris, Algiers, and, yes, Egypt, she came home to the same thing, continually, voluntarily placing herself back in a cage not even gilded. A modern woman in Myrtle's position would have seized one of the opportunities presented to her - to take up the stage, to run off with an Army officer, to continue to live her life, not to re-sequester herself with a husband who wants anyone but Myrtle.
Von Stade is regal, elegant, and fierce rather than resigned, at least until the end; Myrtle is a woman of character, and von Stade keeps that character front and center both vocally and in her acting. Her fit of throwing her paintbrushes and paints across the porch in anger, recalling her husband, is as close to a perfect moment as there is on stage. If only the piece were written for more of this.
Von Stade is everything one could hope she would be. The opera is not. Whether it will be long performed without von Stade singing it is doubtful. It is not a role for a younger mezzo, and it is not a role for a good mezzo, but only for a spectacular one who also has strong acting skills. Otherwise, there is nothing brought to the work to keep it moving at all. It is, as said, a vehicle for von Stade, whether it was intended to be merely that or not.
A chamber piece, A COFFIN IN EGYPT was performed in Philadelphia at Kimmel Center's Perelman Theatre, a much more intimate setting than the Opera's usual home at the Academy of Music. It requires a smaller, rather than larger, venue. When the star is one of von Stade's stature and talent, the intimacy is more than a pleasure, regardless of the work performed.
This was the close of Opera Philadelphia's regular season. For information about the upcoming season, including the premiere of YARDBIRD, visit the Opera's webpage at www.operaphila.org.