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Opera great Frederica von Stade triumphs one more time but can't redeem lackluster world premiere

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3 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Myrtle, Frederica von Stade
Frederic von Stade as Myrtle in Houston Grand opera's production of A Coffin in Egypt. Photo by © Lynn Lane
5 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Captain Lawson, Adam Noble; Myrtle, Frederica von Stade
Adam Noble as Captain Lawson and Frederic von Stade as Myrtle in Houston Grand opera's production of A Coffin in Egypt. Photo by © Lynn Lane
6 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Myrtle, Frederica von Stade, left, and Elsie, Carolyn Johnson
Frederica von Stade as Myrtle, left, and Carolyn Johnson as Elsie in Houston Grand Opera's production of A Coffin in Egypt. Photo by © Lynn Lane
8 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Myrtle, Frederica von Stade and Hunter, David Matranga
Frederica von Stade as Myrtle and David Matranga as Hunter in Houston Grand Opera's production of A Coffin in Egypt Photo by © Lynn Lane
11 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Gospel Chorus with Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins
The Gospel Chorus with Cheryl D. Clansy, from left, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow and Jawan C.M. Jenkins in Houston Grand Opera's production of A Coffin in Egypt. Photo by © Lynn Lane
3 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Myrtle, Frederica von Stade
5 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Captain Lawson, Adam Noble; Myrtle, Frederica von Stade
6 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Myrtle, Frederica von Stade, left, and Elsie, Carolyn Johnson
8 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Myrtle, Frederica von Stade and Hunter, David Matranga
11 Houston Grand Opera A Coffin in Egypt March 2014 Gospel Chorus with Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins
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Is nonagenarian Myrtle Bledsoe an enduring little old lady or merely an irritating, self-absorbed racist?

After sitting through Houston Grand Opera’s world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia’s perplexing A Coffin in Egypt, I am tempted to say it doesn’t really matter. When the 90-minute ruminating chamber opera concluded, I rejoiced that I could hear legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade singing just one more time. Then I lamented that it had to be in such an unfortunate work.

 Von Stade graciously came out of retirement to perform the exhausting role, and her voice is as thrilling as ever. 

How did this happen? Von Stade graciously came out of retirement to perform the exhausting role, and her voice is as thrilling as ever. One needn’t be polite – she might be in her later years, but her instrument remains one of striking magnitude and nuance. Ricky Ian Gordon is one of America’s most vital composers, with a rare gift for vocal composition. The late Pulitzer-winning playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, who gave us To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies, among other masterpieces, was of immeasurable talent.

This leaves Leonard Foglia, the weak link who provided a clunky libretto and directed A Coffin in Egypt with little imagination. He created the surtitles as well, and this is important. The opera’s only singing character, Myrtle Bledsoe, is given to flashbacks. When she sings of certain events, it is the surtitles that tell us the year in question.

Of course, great American opera composers such as the late Robert Ashley used projected text as a kind of additional “character” in his groundbreaking television opera Perfect Lives and other operatic works. The technique is nothing new. But it’s strange to have surtitles for an opera sung in English and Foglia’s idea of constantly projecting the date suggests he struggled with how to organize, or one might say, make linear, Foote’s unwieldy narrative.

When we need more of the back-story, Foglia brings on speaking characters, which severely interrupts the vocal flow. When Myrtle Bledsoe’s beef with the black community gets to be too much (she sings lines like “…the Negroes scattered like partridges” and obsesses continually over her dead husband’s “Mulatto” girlfriend), he introduces a rather staid gospel quartet. Alas, it must be said: Gordon hasn’t much of a gift for composing gospel music. As they say, go with what you know, and this isn’t his strength.

 It’s difficult to imagine re-staging this work with a lesser artist, and the shelf-life of this one-act chamber opera seems short. 

Gospel is devotional music, yes, but it has also been presented as entertainment and as opera. A stunning example of the latter is Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s 1985 The Gospel at Colonus, based on Sophocles.

During the evening, as Gordon’s pseudo-melodic phrases climbed and fell like a roller-coaster, I thought of other operas focused on a single character. Oddly, many of them have loose, ruminating narratives. In Schönberg and Marie Pappenheim’s brilliantly atonal Erwartung, a woman frets in a forest, finds her unfaithful lover’s corpse, and then wanders away. In Poulenc and Cocteau’s La voix humaine, Elle argues with her lover on the telephone, makes confessions and then possibly hangs herself with the telephone cord.

A Coffin in Egypt’s Myrtle Bledsoe is a similar sort of character, she sings of her husband’s infidelities, and about flowers, international travel, and wonders things like, “why does no one ever really die?” She is given to reminiscence, she is a narcissist. At what is perhaps the highpoint of the opera, she sings: “maybe the reason I live on and on is simply to forgive… myself!” And that last word is a loud, emphatic high note. 

Brian Nason, who provided the delectable lighting for HGO’s recent A Little Night Music, has done the best he can with Riccardo Hernández‘s static set, which shows a photographic cotton field behind a few rocking chairs.  Hernández has provided simple costumes as well. They don’t distract from von Stade’s lengthy and sometimes repetitive ruminations, but they don’t add much, either.

The opening night audience gave von Stade a well-deserved standing ovation, but it’s difficult to imagine re-staging this work with a lesser artist, and the shelf-life of this one-act chamber opera seems short.

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A Coffin in Egypt will be performed on Sunday (March 16) at  2:30 p.m. and Friday (March 21) at 8:00 p.m.

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