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A Great Voice Carries On

Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
03/14/2014 -  & March 16, 21, 2014
Ricky Ian Gordon: A Coffin in Egypt
Frederica von Stade (Myrtle Bledsoe), David Matranga (Hunter Bledsoe), Carolyn Johnson (Elsie/Clerk), Cecilia Duarte (Jessie Lydell), Adam Noble (Captain Lawson), Cheryl D. Clansy (Gospel Chorus), Laura Elizabeth Patterson (Gospel Chorus), James M. Winslow (Gospel Chorus), Jawan CM Jenkins (Gospel Chorus)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Timothy Myers (conductor)
Leonard Foglia (Director), Riccardo Hernández (Set and Costume Designer), Brian Nason (Lighting Designer)

F. von Stade (© Lynn Lane)

Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt is, by design, carried entirely by Frederica von Stade. The work was conceived as a one-woman show, but Gordon and librettist and director Leonard Foglia grew the opera as it was created, adding several speaking roles and a four-voice gospel chorus. None of these additions ever threatens to overshadow von Stade’s glorious performance, however, and this is what gives the work a lack of satisfactory dramatic and musical motion.

Gordon’s placid musical rhetoric, hovering somewhere between a toned-down Copland and a less-memorable Richard Rodgers, is a neutral blanket for the deep emotions that run through Horton Foote’s narrative. Flicka’s Myrtle Bledsoe describes all manner of juicy life events, including indiscretions in her and her husband’s personal lives, multiple murders, and the deaths of those closest to her, but Gordon’s music remains primarily cool, unable or unwilling to react. von Stade emotes “I hate you Hunter!” to music of the same intensity as she dances a waltz, and Gordon’s concocted gospel hymns, also given pristine performances by the quartet of singers, never come close to conveying the voices that, in Foglia’s words, “rang out with such abandon,” causing Horton Foote himself to be “so excited and moved.”

The visual design is attractive, with a large ribbon-like screen writhing through the stage. Upon it, gigantic, projected cotton blossoms form an appropriate backdrop against which a play of lights mirrors the emotional arc of the plot. Costume design is period-appropriate, and Flicka looks especially stunning.

Hearing von Stade sustain more than an hour of almost constant singing, all with purity of tone and sensitivity of phrasing, itself is worth the experience. Those wondering if this American treasure still “has it” need not worry. She does, in spades.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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