Opera condenses family saga into one compelling character

Over the past decade or so, I've seen new operas based on history, literature and contemporary life; by composers from North and South America, Europe and Asia; one-act and full-length; ranging musically from traditional to adventurous. "A Coffin in Egypt," premiered Friday night by Houston Grand Opera, is the most compelling of the lot.

Based on a play by Horton Foote, it's a one-act opera centering on one woman, but it encompasses a personal and family saga spanning decades. Ricky Ian Gordon's music and Leonard Foglia's libretto enable 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, the central character, to tell her tale quickly and vividly, yet they let her stop at times for musings that crystallize her emotions. Though mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is sometimes strained by the music's intensity, her liveliness as a singing actress makes Myrtle a commanding figure.

Here's a measure of all that. I knew going in that Myrtle would be the dominant figure. Yet only in the opera's final moments, as Myrtle slowly walked off, did it dawn on me that von Stade had never left the stage, and only rarely left the spotlight, during the entire 80 minutes. With Gordon's score and Foglia's text helping animate her, von Stade made Myrtle's constant presence seem natural.

No wonder the role is such a marathon. Seven decades after arriving in Egypt, Texas, as a young bride, Myrtle realizes that the coffin of the opera's title can't be far in her future. Before she lands there, she wants to rid herself of the anger, bitterness and regret that have built up inside her since she married Hunter Bledsoe.

Myrtle launches into a story that ranges through adultery, family tensions and killings, plus other sorrows only mentioned. But her matter-of-factness and humor signal the strength that has enabled her to outlive most everyone she describes. And Myrtle reveals that she found some enjoyment along the way, especially when she took off with her young daughters for seven free-spirited years in Europe. She ends that recollection with a confession that shows the power of the opera's text to sum up her feelings.

"What I miss about those seven glorious years is - me," she sings.

Gordon's music amplifies her sentiments. Gentle, free-flowing melodies drive home Myrtle's wistfulness about past pleasures and her love of nature's beauty. When her anger flares up, Gordon's sharply etched vocal lines pack a wallop. The music's animation and economy enable her storytelling to move quickly.

On Friday, von Stade made Myrtle's soul-searching hit home through her flair for bringing words alive, from scornfully spitting out the name of Hunter's mistress to lingering over the word "beauty" the way Myrtle's eyes must have lingered over the Texas prairie. Though her singing was always committed, it sometimes was only approximate in pitch; when the music was conversational, that wasn't a liability, but some of the big moments cried out for a steadiness and heft that von Stade didn't have.

Yet the music's momentum carried through those spots, and the impact was all the greater because von Stade cut such a compelling figure. As the 90-year-old Myrtle painting at her easel as the curtain rose, von Stade stood straight and resolute. But when memories brought back old emotions, von Stade made them show - smiling softly as Myrtle recalled long-ago admirers' compliments, turning stone-faced in a confrontation with Hunter, sinking to the floor when news reduced her to despair.

Foglia, who also was stage director, intensified the drama by bringing in a handful of characters from Myrtle's past to re-enact the encounters she recalls. Those episodes used spoken dialogue, putting them on a different emotional plane from Myrtle's narrative. Actor David Matranga, as Hunter, captured the philandering husband's deterioration from young and defiant to aging, stooped and guilt-ridden; his decline set Myrtle's strength in relief.

The nine-player instrumental ensemble, conducted by Timothy Myers, brought Gordon's score a vividness, impact and fullness that belied its size. Riccardo Hernández's set was dominated by a backdrop of cotton plants ready for harvest, evoking not only South Texas but the end of nature's life cycle.

The opera contained yet another framing device: a gospel quartet singing hymns created by Gordon and Foglia. The group represented the choir of an African-American church near Myrtle's home, but they periodically came onstage, where their soulfulness and jubilation were a counterpoint to Myrtle's narrative. Their hymns offered counsel that might have aided Myrtle, and the question of whether she would heed it became an unspoken subplot - and another ingredient in the opera's musical and emotional richness.

- Steven Brown, Houston Chronicle, 15 March 2014