COT's 'Coffin' a moving star vehicle for von Stade
Ricky Ian Gordon's chamber opera showcases Flicka's art

Few opera greats of a certain age have been privileged to be granted quite the career coda Frederica von Stade has been enjoying in recent years. The beloved American mezzo-soprano was coaxed out of semi-retirement again last year to assume center stage in "A Coffin in Egypt," a one-act chamber opera written for her by Ricky Ian Gordon, with a libretto by Leonard Foglia based on the play by Horton Foote.

Following performances in Houston (where the work originated), Beverly Hills and Philadelphia, "A Coffin in Egypt" had its local premiere by Chicago Opera Theater on Saturday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. It is a pungent character study that plays expertly to the vocal and dramatic strengths of von Stade. In a sung and spoken role that is effectively a solo showpiece, she scores a moving tour de force.

Von Stade plays Myrtle Bledsoe, 90, a rich widow living in a tiny backwater in Egypt, Texas. We find her stewing in bitterness and resentment, the collateral damage of a long, failed marriage to a serial philanderer. This elegant, white-coifed lady flits ruefully and randomly from memory to memory as she putters about the stage, moving from easel to rocking chair.

Time lurches backward and forward, psychological layers are peeled away. A city-bred beauty who married for money at 19, Myrtle was pursued by a sheik in Algiers and an impresario who promised her stardom on the Broadway stage. But she wound up matrimonially imprisoned on the Texas prairie while her husband, Hunter, a wealthy farmer, cheated on her openly. Denied the possibility of divorce, she suffered indignity after indignity, shunned even by her two daughters, who blamed her for their father's infidelities.

It was to von Stade's immense credit that Myrtle emerged as a complex, finally sympathetic figure, rather than some maudlin caricature out of a Southern gothic. The mezzo always was a compelling singing actress, and, as she nears 70, her voice remains in remarkably fine shape, still strong in the low and middle ranges that long were a glory of her vocal arsenal.

Myrtle may be a snob and a bigot, but her wounded dignity made one care about her plight, right down to the feel-good ending in which the grande dame achieved a kind of emotional closure. Amplification was used to help clarify the spoken dialog but it hardly seemed necessary in von Stade's case, with her melodious Texas drawl.

Carefully crafted so as to sit comfortably atop the leading lady's voice and artistry, Gordon's gentle, accessible score goes in for wide-open, post-Copland harmonies that evoke a distinctively American kind of nostalgia. The music lacks bite when certain dramatic stress points would benefit from it. Still, the wistful, Sondheimesque rue of Myrtle's big set piece, "Red," stuck in one's ears.

Gordon's and Foglia's use of a gospel quartet of singers to punctuate Myrtle's reminiscences was an effective touch, and the composer's original hymns were vividly taken by an ensemble consisting of Kimberly E. Jones, Leah Dexter, Bernard Holcomb and Nicholas Davis.

Foglia directed with the sure hand that was evident in his recent staging at Lyric Opera of Jose "Pepe" Martinez's latest mariachi opera, "El Pasado Nunca Se Termina," for which he also wrote the libretto.

The nine-piece instrumental ensemble admirably conducted by Emanuele Andrizzi, head of the orchestra program at Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts -- gave the singers the support they needed without getting in the way of clear vocal projection.

Four actors Carolyn Johnson, David Matranga, Whitney Rappano and William Dwyer assumed walk-on roles as figures in Myrtle's life. Matranga was especially good as her contemptible hubby, Hunter.

The show also was inviting to the eye, thanks to a lovely, curvilinear backdrop of autumnal-hued prairie wildflowers Riccardo Hernandez, the set and costume designer, would appear to have borrowed from one of Myrtle's own paintings. Brian Nason supplied the atmospheric lighting.

In a related note, Robert Falls, artistic director of Goodman Theatre, announced over the weekend that the theater has commissioned Gordon and playwright Richard Nelson to create a music theater adaptation of film director Ingmar Bergman's memoir, "Private Confessions." Falls will direct. No premiere date has been set.
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