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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Opera Review: This Ain't the Golden West

Utopia Opera digs up The Ballad of Baby Doe.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The prize: H.A.W. Tabor (Jack Anderson White, standing) bejewels his beloved Baby Doe
(Angela Dinkelman) in the Utopia Opera production. Photo by William Remmers

Sometimes an opera is so closely connected to a particular singer that their retirement causes it to vanish from the stage. That's what happened to Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, which vanished from the New York City Opera when soprano Beverly Sills left the stage for a management role with the company. This month, the small and scrappy Utopia Opera company is mounting Baby Doe at Hunter College with two casts, trying to prove that this is more than just a one-diva opera. The spare production by Gary Slavin was mounted in the Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College. It uses title cards and four chairs on a bare stage, all to good effect.

Baby Doe is a true story, the chronicle of Elizabeth "Baby" Doe Tabor, the second wife of the silver miner H.A.W. Tabor. It chronicles the first meeting between the two, and how quickly Howard abandoned his first wife Augusta for the younger woman, causing scandal and threatening his rise to prominence in the politics and business of 1890s America. However, it wasn't Baby who destroyed the Tabor empire, it was the collapse of the silver market and the end of silver as a coinage standard that reduced him to ruin.

From her entrance, soprano Angela Dinkelman dominated the action as Baby Doe, capturing that character's mix of sweetness and steel. Her voice warmed audibly in the first act, losing its flutey sound and finding the silver beneath. She was more impressive in the second act, capturing Baby's isolation in polite society and later destitution. Baby has her flaws but she believes in her husband, even hocking the jewels he gives her to invest in his silver stake. (This helps sink the Tabors for good.)  The finale was most powerful of all, moved to the stage of the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, CO, as her husband died in her arms.

As Horace A. W. Tabor, baritone Jack Anderson White was a find. He looked like Daddy Warbucks, combining stage presence with a music-hall approach to the role's more comical aspects. His decision to divorce his first wife Augusta is an impulsive one, steering him down the road to socio-political disaster. However there's genuine affection, even love between the second pair of Tabors, something that the singers managed to convey. There was nothing funny about his mad scene at the end of the second act, a touching finale in which the former industrialist's life literally parades before his eyes.

Augusta is the third key character. She was played by mezzo Elizabeth Bouk as a mirror for Baby Doe. Ms. Bouk has a flinty demeanor and a big voice to match, wielded like a sharp knife. Her performance matured too as the character went from spurned ex to an almost Erda-like figure, hunched and walking with a cane, uttering warnings about the coming collapse of the silver market and at the same time, finding the humanity in this character. As she makes a last ditch effort to save her ex-husband from his own hubris, the performance climaxed with tremendous power. Ms. Bouk also made an appearance in the finale as the offstage voice of Tabor's mother.

Four men and four women played supporting roles, as Tabor's cronies, rivals, employees and the couples in his social circle. These fine comic performers also doubled in small parts, switching costumes and accessories as needed. Bass Duncan Hartman gave a fine short turn as William Jennings Bryan, whose loss to McKinley in the 1896 presidential election is the last nail in the coffin of the Tabor empire. Mention should also be made of young Zoe Marie Hart and Anya Rose Tillestrand, both adorable and professional as the young Tabor children.

Moore's opera was performed in a reduced orchestration for just 19 instruments under the baton of Utopia artistic director William Remmers. The score looks forward and back, incorporating Italianate writing for the voice, American folk songs and 19th century song forms. Between the arias, a conversational style accompanied by bubbling and omnipresent orchestration recalls the  Pucciniof La Fanciulla del West. Mr. Remmers led a quick-footed performance that sometimes left the little orchestra struggling to keep up. There was one opening night glitch. In the first act when his keyboardist played the wrong cue. He leapt off his conducting perch and played the correct part himself.

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