A Coffin in Egypt is a compact new opera with distinctly American flavors of music and theater. The main character, who dominates the stage and the singing, is a 90-year-old widow, Myrtle Bledsoe (Frederica von Stade), from a small town in Texas. Now somewhat demented, she attempts to recall, despite mild delusions and lapses of memory, her frustrations and animosities as she, sensing the end is near, tries to make sense of her life. An erstwhile victim of her wealthy, impulsive, and sociopathic husband, Hunter (David Matranga), who had committed senseless murder and viewed Myrtle as a convenient household appendage, Myrtle recalls, with some confabulation, her wild days in Paris and New York and compares what “might have been” with her real destiny as a bitter, lonely woman.
Myrtle’s companion and caregiver, Jesse Lydell (Kate Bianco), is her only listener as she regretfully recalls the doomed trajectory of her life. Her husband, Hunter, as well as Captain Lawson, a military officer (Ben Sheaffer) who briefly wooed her, and a court clerk, Elsie (Carolyn Johnson), appear as dream-like flashbacks to a sad and empty past. A “Gospel Quartet” (Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, and Frank Mitchell) consisting of four itinerant bible-thumping African Americans, whom Myrtle disparagingly calls “Negroes,” serves as a chorus, commenting on Myrtle’s state and bearing a message of forgiveness. The locale, Egypt, is a godforsaken town in Texas which stands in sharp contrast to the mysterious, romantic land of pyramids and burial crypts which Myrtle had visited. It symbolically represents the biblical Egypt of exile, enslavement, arbitrary power, fall from grace, and exodus.
This is clearly the stuff of which opera is made: tragedy, unrequited love, unfolding of disturbing truths, and characters who embody good and evil. Librettist and director Leonard Foglia makes the most of Horton Foote’s original play to fulfill operatic necessities. The players and the action are simultaneously complex and stereotyped, so the roles generate both puzzlement and empathy. The staging is simple and uncluttered, allowing for the imagination to take over. The dialogue is well-structured for the song form and allows the music to highlight the emotions. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon provides vocal music and orchestration that combines elements of American “plainsong” from Barber to Rorem, gospel, and musical theater. It all comes together in a seamless way to provide a perfect vehicle for Frederica von Stade to create a quintessentially American “fallen woman” — an elderly Blanche DuBois with a touch of Medea in her heart.
Contrary to what one gets from many contemporary composers, Ian Gordon’s rendering of Coffin is far from experimental or avant garde, instead making the best of familiar theatrical, musical, and literary devices. Its singular postmodern feature is a minimalism that makes efficient use of staging, movement, and protagonists, in sharp contrast with “grand opera” that treasures the maximal use of props, staging, vocal parts, and scenarios. Von Stade is far and away the dominant singer, and she beautifully sustains an almost uninterrupted performance that might exhaust a singer 40 years younger. All the other roles are foils for her remarkable portrayal of “Myrtle.” Von Stade, to her credit, gives equal attention to acting and singing in a way that few can achieve. As a result, her Myrtle, however grandiose she might be, is an entirely believable woman who in the end engenders compassion. A great opera singer like von Stade, perhaps one of few who takes the requirements of dramatic performance seriously, can make “larger than life” seem like life itself.