As is the case with movie actresses, opportunities decrease when female opera singers reach a certain age. There are only so many chances to be the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s "Queen of Spades," for example. So when the much-beloved mezzo Frederica von Stade retired from the opera stage in February 2011 at age 65, with a final outing as Mrs. De Rocher, the show-stealing featured part that Jake Heggie wrote for her in "Dead Man Walking" (2000), her many fans assumed that was the end. It wasn’t. Ms. von Stade is back, this time at center stage in "A Coffin in Egypt," a one-act chamber opera written for her by Ricky Ian Gordon. The work had its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in March, went on to Beverly Hills and is now at Opera Philadelphia.
Working with librettist Leonard Foglia, Mr. Gordon based the opera on Horton Foote’s play of the same name. It’s a ferocious character study. Myrtle Bledsoe, age 90, living in the tiny backwater town of Egypt, Texas, looks back on her life, and for the most part, it isn’t pretty. In 1900, at 19, a beautiful, much-pursued city girl, she married a rich farmer, but the promise of that beginning was never fulfilled. Her husband, Hunter, cheated on her openly, first with a black prostitute, and later with a 17-year-old high-school girl whose father he shot and killed. His crime went unpunished, and Hunter and Myrtle’s nephew, assuming he would be similarly immune, murdered his own father. Even Myrtle’s daughters were no comfort to her; they blamed her for Hunter’s tomcatting ways.
It’s an 80-minute solo showpiece, spoken and sung, for Ms. von Stade. Four actors play small walk-on roles in Myrtle’s memories and a quartet of black gospel singers punctuate her reminiscences, but the mezzo carries the show. On the surface her Myrtle is an elegant, white-haired lady in a red silk caftan, but underneath she seethes with resentment and bitterness. Time veers forward and backward; she tells stories, and then tells them again, with more detail. We hear about Myrtle’s attempts at escape—her travels to Paris, where she learned to paint; to Algiers, where a sheik fell in love with her; to New York, where a producer wanted to put her on the stage—but we always come back to Texas and the ugly prison of her real life.
Mr. Gordon’s accessible, well-made score is carefully constructed for his leading lady’s vocal and dramatic strengths, taking advantage of her expressive low and middle ranges and giving her the opportunity to show different sides of Myrtle. The strongest sections are extended lyrical arias exploring Myrtle’s happy memories—an elegiac paean to the fields of Texas wildflowers that she first saw in the brief halcyon days early in her marriage; a wistful, Sondheim-esque song of lost opportunity, "There was a moment when I could have. . . ." Her rage is more told than shown, however; the vocal writing isn’t edgy enough to make the outbursts of anger a truly dramatic contrast with the happier reminiscences.
The use of the gospel quartet is an intriguing dramatic device: The black singers, certainly as trapped in their own historical situation as Myrtle is in hers, take refuge in religion. However, Mr. Gordon’s music for them lacks the ecstatic fervor of real gospel, though Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris and Frank Mitchell sang it with feeling. The orchestrations for the small, nine-member instrumental ensemble, ably led by Timothy Myers, are skillfully and colorfully calibrated to support and echo the singers rather than compete with them.
Mr. Foglia also directed the show, using the actors David Matranga, Carolyn Johnson, Kate Bianco and Ben Sheaffer as foils for his leading lady without taking the focus off her. Riccardo Hernández designed the attractive set, with its undulating back wall showing a cotton field, and costumes (very everyday, except for Ms. von Stade’s luxurious red caftan); Brian Nason designed the autumnal lighting. But it was Ms. von Stade’s evening, and she held the stage with complete authority. Although her Southern accent came and went, you felt Myrtle’s age in the hesitation of her walk, her aloofness in the carriage of her head and shoulders, and her awakening to the possibilities of life in her first genuine smile ("I learned I was fun"). Even the saccharine ending—in which Myrtle wonders if she’s lived so long, and outlived everyone else, so that she could finally forgive herself—was believable. Some performers don’t need to retire.