Tale of a time-tested woman

A pleasing tension rolls off the stage in A Coffin in Egypt, the emotional differential between Ricky Ian Gordon's optimistic score and his dejected main character, the widow Bledsoe. Such contrasts bloom in abundance. Myrtle Bledsoe once had beauty and wealth but was tethered to a philandering, murderous husband, and despite great cultural ambition found herself mostly in rural, early-20th-century Egypt, Texas, pining for something beyond the horizon.

Bledsoe spends most of the 80-minute one-act, currently being presented by Opera Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, in bitter flashback. The dominant visual (sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernández) is a close-up projection of cotton in the fields, glowing in colors timed to shift with the mood. It is an apt backdrop to a bad lot in life: cotton and woman, both delicate refinements, fraught with a brutal past.

The abiding sense of warmth and reassuring goodness in A Coffin in Egypt's soundscape may overestimate its characters' capacity for the same, but Gordon's contribution to the genre is as germane to the spirit of a place as Copland's The Tender Land or Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men.

A Coffin in Egypt, though, based on Horton Foote's 1980 play, has a streak of music theater in it. That this is not quite opera is a useful idea. It is, perhaps, better heard as an extended cabaret set when you consider that Bledsoe's is the only solo singing role in it - a quartet of African American singers wander in and out - and even more so when that part is sung by Frederica von Stade. The other roles are taken by a team of strong actors directed by Leonard Foglia: David Matranga as her rough, disengaged husband, Hunter; Ben Sheaffer as an old flame that never caught; Carolyn Johnson and Kate Bianco in smaller roles.

The veteran mezzo is, like her character, now a woman of a certain age, and only a fool comes to this experience judging what she brings to the role by using the operatic yardstick one might have applied in her prime. You needn't be a sycophant - von Stade has more than enough anyway - to appreciate that her deep wells of wistfulness and wisdom would not have been easily found by a 40-year-old. This is a voice of patina and decay, aged 69 years and very much earned.

A Coffin in Egypt does feel slight. It's not the brevity, and goodness knows it's not because this is a small-town tale. Think of fragile Azalea Adair in O. Henry's A Municipal Report and you realize how explosive bits of local news can be. Like O. Henry, Foote touches on race, but unlike that short story, not for any strong dramatic reason. Bledsoe, hearing the quartet of spiritual singers, says she "never cared much for their music myself." Indeed, the device is a contrivance. It seems like the work of a script doctor, too, when at the very end, Bledsoe's bitterness finds resolution out of the blue.

But Friday, in its East Coast premiere (it was commissioned by Opera Philadelphia with Houston Grand Opera and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills), there was much to like, often in the nine-member pit ensemble led by Timothy Myers.

Like Myrtle Bledsoe, the music tends to repeat itself, instruments echoing melodic strands of the singers. Gordon is adept at illustrating the text - it could be salon music or a brief quote from Oklahoma! (" . . . everything's going my way") - a quality that accounts for much of what makes this piece work, especially to ears open to hearing it as something less orthodox than opera.

- Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 June 2014