Houston — Although A Coffin in Egypt is technically a chamber opera, this stunning new work by composer Ricky Ian Gordon also deserves the additional modifier of “Grand,” for there is nothing small about it except for the forces required to perform it. All of the other aspects of “grand opera” are there: sex, murder, infidelity, racial tensions, intrigue, inter-family disasters and (of course) a tragic heroine underlined by a beautiful and effective score that carries the audience with her on an inexorable downward spiral.
The “chamber” designation, which may not be official, comes from the fact that there is only one operatic singing character aided by a vocal quartet and a few actors, accompanied by a small orchestral ensemble of nine players. But in Gordon’s hands, this tale of intrigue in small town Texas looms large in the minds of those who experienced the Houston Grand Opera’s production when it premiered on Friday evening.
Part of the credit goes to Frederica von Stade, one of the great mezzo-sopranos of our generation, who completely inhabits the role of Myrtle Bledsoe, the 90-year-old woman who tells us her heartrending story over the course of the one-act opera’s 90 minutes.
The opera is based on a play by Horton Foote, turned into a riveting opera libretto by Leonard Foglia, who also directs. It is set in the early 1900’s in the barely real town of Egypt, Texas, with a current population of 29 souls.
In a wide-ranging monologue, Myrtle recounts her sad life story—as much to herself as to us—as she tries to come to terms with the sorry state in which she finds herself. She has outlived all of the supporting characters in her life, from her children and philandering husband, to those few others that made a lasting impression for better or for worse. In one pathetic moment of self-realization, she catches a glimpse of her own culpability, but that soon passes like a moment of indigestion in her banquet of self-pity. Foglia adds in some speaking roles to flesh out the other characters, such as her husband, but while they were effective in telling us the story, they detracted from Foote’s original concept that she is completely, finally and utterly alone.
Von Stade turns in a virtuoso performance. She gives Myrtle the regal bearing of a woman overly conscious of her self-worth and the incredible advantage conferred on her by her exceptional beauty. Occasionally, she lets Myrtle’s advanced age peek through her carefully constructed façade, like at the end of the opera when she finally has to use her cane for its true purpose of helping her walk, rather than the fin de siècle prop of a grand dame.
Vocally, she is amazing. Like the timeless character she portrays, the fact that she is in the 50th year of an international career is barely noticeable. The glorious mezzo is as magnificent as ever. She always tended to be more on the soprano side of mezzo rather than the darker contralto border, so the burnished brightness that is her trademark remains undimmed. There is some hollowness in the lower part of the middle voice, always a treacherous spot in anyone’s voice. She compensates by using more chest voice than fits the calculated refinement of the aristocratic Myrtle. This somewhat blunts the effectiveness of dropping into chest for emphasis, but others will probably disagree with this assessment. Von Stade creates a memorable Myrtle, who has survived all of the slings and arrows fate had to throw at her and is living on what scrap of dignity she can still muster.
A quartet of African-American gospel singers acts as a Greek chorus as they wander throughout the opera. Foote places their church close to Myrtle’s home and their frequent singing carried to her front porch, creating a sound track to her life. In the original play, this aspect was furnished by way of pre-recorded selections, which were sung by the members of a real church. Here, as live people, they add a surreal presence, much like Fellini used nuns peppered throughout his movies that dealt with similar issues of guilt and self-delusion. They are dressed in their Sunday finest, but in dark colors, as though at a funeral or Good Friday services.
All four voices are excellent and their blend is nearly perfect, with each voice able to rise ever so slightly above the others when required. They also are able to hold pitch in long and complex passages, sung unaccompanied, such as a fugal section near the end. Rather than use existing materials, Gordon wrote new gospel songs that are reminiscent enough of the style that they could take on an independent post-opera life of their own.
The small orchestral ensemble has an almost overwhelming job. Other works for such a small group of players, even ones with singers, do not have to take the place of an opera orchestra in the pit oh an opera house. Gordon, who is a skilled orchestrator, wisely goes for clarity and transparency rather than for volume. This works remarkably well for the most part. However, in the big moments where the orchestral sound is supposed to carry you away, a few more instruments were definitely required—at least enough to complete the wind quintet. Even adding a second horn would have helped in those critical moments requiring more orchestral splendor.
Condcutor Timothy Myers does a splendid job throughout. He obviously knows every note of the score, which allows him to be in constant contact with all of the musicians in the pit and the performers stage. His tempi always feels “right” and he keeps the score alive, even during the sections of spoken dialogue.
In the final analysis, an opera is all about the music. Gordon’s natural-born understanding of how music works for the stage is readily apparent throughout. His musical voice is a seamless conglomeration of music of our era. In addition to the operatic language of the verismo, Gordon welcomes the influence of other genres, such as musical comedy, pop, cabaret, gospel and jazz as well as the harmonic freedoms that our excursions into modernism and atonality added to his palette. This gives his basically neo-romantic musical voice a vibrant currency sound that says that it could have only been written at this moment instead of a retreat into the stale vocabulary of times past.
The physical aspects of the production take an impressionistic approach to create realistic environments. Reflecting Myrtle’s artistic obsession with painting and the season of her life’s journey, there is a huge cyclorama in the background that is a water-colorist’s take on cotton fields. Set designer Ricardo Hernández indicates the front porch of Myrtle’s home by some outdoor furniture and a single column. All of the other locations are cleverly created by lighting designer Brian Nason. For example, a large social occasion is indicated by dark blue reflections, seen on the floor, of an unmoving mirror ball. Myrtle is often completely isolated from reality, trapped in her own prison of light. Hernández, also the costume designer, dresses Myrtle in a red satin negligée that could easily pass as an elegant formal gown. This is a brilliant concept that allows her to be appropriately dressed in all of the various times and places the story takes us.
A Coffin in Egypt has to be considered an unqualified success that has a solid future in the operatic repertoire. Von Stade does a magnificent job of creating the character of Myrtle Bledsoe, but you can already see the line of mezzo’s forming to have a chance to bring their own unique abilities to what has to be numbered among the juiciest roles ever written for the voice range. Instead of the usual collection of trouser roles, witches, loose women and chamber maids that are assigned to mezzos (“witches, bitches and britches” as they say), this mezzo gets to portray a beautiful and complex woman as she agonizes through the wreckage of her life—without another singer in sight to try and upstage them.
Mezzo heaven, without a doubt.
» Read our interview with Ricky Ian Gordon here
» There will be a special one-night performance of A Coffin in Egypt on March 23 at the Plaza Theatre in Foote's hometown of Wharton, Texas