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REVIEW: Frederica von Stade is Riveting in ‘A Coffin in Egypt,’ an Opera Strong in Emotional Impact, Yet Lacking in Musical Variety

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Apr 28, 2015 02:07 AM EDT

A Coffin in Egypt received its Chicago premiere Saturday night at the Harris Theater, with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade in the starring role. The new opera by Ricky Ian Gordon is enlivened by von Stade's rapturously sung and emotionally moving portrayal of a woman struggling to deal with her wealthy husband's infidelity.

This production by Chicago Opera Theater is an emotionally powerful journey through the memories, joys and regrets of Myrtle Bledsoe, grande dame of Egypt, Texas. Von Stade's lovely voice, still rich and full, is capable of conveying a full range of emotion. Hearing von Stade, who is nearing 70, in such good voice should delight her fans--and, incidentally, give other singers hope that it might be possible to reach their golden years with their voices intact.

Most of the events that Myrtle describes in A Coffin in Egypt take place in Texas during the first half of the 20th Century. This particular time and place presents certain choices for a composer: Should the music be based on the styles of the period? Or evoke the American West á la Aaron Copland? Or would a more contemporary idiom be the wiser choice?

Gordon chose to write much of the music in a contemporary idiom that does have "American" overtones, at times reminiscent of the lushly attractive music in Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer 1915." An exception is the more structured music Gordon wrote for a gospel quartet that appears at crucial moments in the story.

Most of Myrtle's music sounds more freeform and meandering, in a style appropriate to her rambling reminiscences. This style is effective in places (such as the soaring "open prairie" music), but otherwise starts to sound repetitive and without sufficient focus.

This is perhaps the biggest issue I had with Myrtle's music in "A Coffin in Egypt:" To my ears, the meandering vocal line never quite coalesces into a strong theme. Such themes are necessary as "signposts" amidst the rambling, surging music that characterizes much of this opera.

An exception is the scene where Myrtle recalls meeting Captain Lawson. Here, tender waltz music evokes the dance where they met. The coloratura flourishes that Myrtle sings embellish the simple tune. Myrtle is elated until her husband steps in to halt the budding romance. Actor David Matranga plays the non-singing role of Hunter Bledsoe, who ages quite realistically throughout the opera. Matranga successfully conveys Hunter's callousness as well as his lack of character that leads to one of the tragic events later in this opera.

The simple waltz music of the "Captain Lawson" scene, with Gordon's variations and embellishments, beautifully underscores this little drama and provides a much-needed contrasting musical style. This reviewer wishes that Gordon had made use of other contrasting styles of music to provide more musical variety in other scenes.

As such, the gospel quartet is a welcome change in style to a more structured type of music. Vocalists Leah Dexter, Bernard Holcomb, Kimberly E. Jones and Nicholas Davis sing with exquisite balance and blend, their sound expertly sculpted by conductor Emanuele Andrizzi.

A Coffin in Egypt will continue its run at the Harris Theater with performances on April 29 and May 1 and 3. More information is available at chicagooperatheater.org.

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TagsFrederica von Stade, A Coffin in Egypt, Chicago Opera Theater, Ricky Ian Gordon, Harris Theater, David Matranga, EXCLUSIVE, REVIEW