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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Opera Review: A Not-So-Distant Mirror

The Prototype Festival brings Fellow Travelers to New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A young, idealistic Fordham Ram: Aaron Blake as Timothy Laughlin in Fellow Travelers.
Photo by Jill Steinberg for the Prototype Festival. 

Despite the best efforts by the current party in power in Washington D.C., America is a very different place than it was in 1953. Today, gay relationships are socially acceptable and gay marriage is the law of the land, but those freedoms are threatened by political and religious leaders with very different ideas. That alone makes Fellow Travelers, the new opera by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce  the most powerful and politically relevant opera to be mounted in New York this season.



Fellow Travelers had its New York premiere on Friday night, in the first of four performances at the Lynch Theater in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The show, based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, chronicles the torrid and ultimately tragic affair between Timothy Laughlin (Aaron Blake) and Hawkins Fuller (Joseph Lattanzi) who meet on a District park bench in 1953. Over the next four years their love affair spins out against the backdrop of the McCarthy Era and the so-called "red scare."

Mr. Spears has set Mr. Pierce's witty, wordy libretto to a taut, pulsating score, played here by the American Composer's Orchestra under the baton of George Manahan. The music propels the drama relentlessly forward, swaddling the words in thick blankets of sound as comfortable and quilted as the duvet on Laughlin's bed. This is modern opera, so arias and ensembles are eschewed for a Glass-meets-Wagner style of terse dialogue, but Mr. Spears also makes sure his actors have some beautiful music to sing. However, sound problems in the Lynch auditorium threatened to overwhelm the singers onstage.

As Laughlin, the starry-eyed Fordham graduate who discovers his sexual identity after falling hard for Hawkins, Aaron Blake simply excels. This is a complicated, multi-faceted performances, going from gormless kid to sadder and wiser adult. Mr. Blake's light, soaring tenor is most  agreeable o the ear. His acting lends a genuine quality to what could be a contrived, stock figure, lending him a grace and delicacy to the character that escalates the work to a level of grand tragedy.

Mr. Lattanzii is an able foil as the feckless and charismatic Hawk. He plays the character as a sort of Washingtonian blade, a soulless, sexed up conquistador whose feelings for Laughlin are constantly weighed against his hedonistic pursuits. The singer has a cool, smallish baritone but uses this limited resource to bring color and mystery to the man called Hawk. From his first scene on a park bench (where he teases young Tim about drinking milk), Hawk is initially an appealing figure. As the two fall in love, the easy manner and loose grin hide turmoil and conflict. All this emotion comes bursting forth as the opera's plot hits its crisis point. His reckless actions end with the ultimate betrayal of his former lover. Its resolution is not bloody or violent, just unbearably sad.

The two leads were surrounded by a strong cast of comprimario players. As Mary Johnson, who is secretly in love with both of the opera's leading men, soprano Devon Guthrie brings a rich and almost maternal presence along with a pleasing instrument. Veteran baritone Vernon Hartman is a presence as Senator Potter, and Marcus DeLoach shines in three "heavy" roles including a dead-on impersonation of the late and unlamented Joe McCarthy. The sense of paranoia and tension is ratcheted by the performances of these supporting players, which is all to the good.

This production, directed by Kevin Newbury, is an import from the Cincinnati Opera, where Fellow Travelers had its 2016 premiere. The sliding file cabinets, minimal period furniture and the suggestions of walls and buildings make it possible for the viewer to keep track through the rapid-fire set changes as the opera's plot bounces around Washington DC. Indeed the tone of this entire work echoes personal Washingtonian dramas like the Robert DeNiro spy film The Good Shepherd and the Julianne Moore vehicle Far From Heaven. This is an important opera, a deeply personal work and on Friday night, it was a triumph for its young librettist and composer alike.  

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.