Truth is more brutal than fiction. Particularly when the truth is the story of Colonel Floyd James Thompson, whose nine years in captivity in Vietnam made him America’s longest-held prisoner of war. It’s perfect material for a chamber opera: an epic war story focused on the intimacy of a single excruciating life.
It seems to be the time for veterans of the Vietnam War to get the respect and attention that many felt have been lacking. In the past few years, recognition for Vietnam vets has been growing. Five states have passed laws honoring or welcoming home (however belatedly) Vietnam vets. And Glory Denied, the compact, brooding opera based on the book of the same name by Tom Philpott, saw its first performances in 2007.
Last Thursday – Veterans Day – was Chelsea Opera’s first performance of Glory Denied, which ran through Sunday at St. Peter’s Church in Chelsea. Composer Tom Cipullo compiled the libretto from Philpott’s oral history of Colonel Thompson. It’s not just the story of Thompson’s years of imprisonment and torture. While he was captive, his wife, Alyce, went to live with another man and told their four children that Thompson was dead. Because Alyce refused to have his name released to the public as a POW, another man ws named the longest-held prisoner. After Thompson was released, he and Alyce tried to reconcile, then divorced. He died alone.
There is no redemption here.
It’s useful to read the background information and the synopsis beforehand, because not all the text comes through in performance. The balance was problematic from the beginning. Though Glory Denied is scored for a chamber orchestra, the sixteen players often covered the singers.
I’m inclined to blame the space rather than the voices, orchestration, or conductor. In St. Peter’s, with no proscenium to throw the voices forward and no pit to contain the instrumental sound, the brass and percussion alone could overpower most singers. The full ensemble made it impossible to hear many words, particularly (and problematically) at dramatic climaxes.
Cipullo’s taut score shows a thoughtful use of color. His harmonic language encompasses the lush and the astringent, illuminating and augmenting the characters’ perspectives. Cipullo develops themes built of and around the dueling memories and desires of his characters.
Carmine Aufiero conducted with fluid energy and precision.
The composer’s notes in the program indicate that Cipullo decided early on to use two Alyce characters. “One would represent Jim’s idealized vision, while the other would show what Alyce was actually doing and thinking.” He then decided to have two Jim Thompsons as well: “Young Jim would live through these events, while the older character would recall them from a distance.” The dual Alyce is more effective, since the character is split between imagination and reality; the temporal difference between the younger and older Jim is more straightforward, less subtle.
The idealized Alyce is intriguing. She appears at first to be a caricature: cat’s-eye glasses, bleached hair decorated with a headband, a cute little apron. Victoria Browers’ bright soprano emphasized the character’s perkiness, though Browers sounded airy in some of her high notes. This Alyce writes letters, talks of their children, glows with pregnancy in a joyful duet. She seems like the apotheosis of a mid-century American housewife. But this is what Thompson remembered of his wife; it’s the image he holds onto throughout his captivity; and it’s what he wants when he finally returns. His sincerity saves the character from silliness.
Meanwhile, the real Alyce is aloof and uncompromising. Unable to cope with her husband’s plight, she moves on to another man. Soprano Martha Guth uses her satin voice and sharp movements to give the character a cold dignity. In her second-act aria she tries to justify her behavior: “He went to hell but so did I.” The production highlights the absurdity of her self-pity by having her – with the ideal Alyce standing alongside – sing, “I just wanted it over with” to Thompson’s face. As if it were that simple? As if he didn’t want his imprisonment over with?
The painful irony in moments like these give the opera much of its punch. The young Thompson sings forced statements (“I am being treated well”) while hunching over from injury and weakeness. Act I climaxes in a quartet highlighting the opera’s moral questions: the older Jim asserts that there is “a sense of right and wrong,” the younger Jim declares his faith by singing a psalm, while Alyce sings, “How can I sit in a rocking chair all day and do nothing?” After Thompson returns home, the younger, idealized version of the couple dances upstage, easy and intimate; the older couple dances downstage, awkward and uncertain.
Glory Denied is not an action-packed opera. It’s one in which the characters reflect on action that for the most part has taken place elsewhere. There’s also not a lot of physical space to work with at St. Peter’s. So it works out, generally, that stage movement is limited. The set is simple: a platform, a table, a chair, a couple of stools. Characters stand, or turn, or pace. Much of the production has the effect of tableaux.
And sometimes, when there is more active staging, it doesn’t work. In recalling beatings and interrogations, the older Thompson acts out the violence on the younger. Visceral cracks and hits are already written into the orchestration, and the stage blows were not only feebly fake but sometimes out of sync. It might have been more powerful to show the young prisoner react alone to blows we can hear but cannot see.
Act I and Act II are structured very differently: Act I is more layered, moment-to-moment, with passing duets, trios, and quartets. Cipullo layers ideas and emotions into overlapping musical textures. The more traditionally structured Act II features arias from all four characters, each one developing that character in important ways. After the swirl of Act I, the audience seemed delighted to have showstoppers to applaud.
Tenor Jonathan Kline brought a powerful, clear voice to his nuanced portrayal of the older Jim Thompson. The most enthusiastically received aria was his snappy rhyming catalogue of all the things that he can’t get used to after his return home. Nine years of American culture and politics have left him stranded, and Kline allowed the audience to see the humor in his disorientation while conveying the character’s bewilderment and bitterness.
An instrumental interlude, featuring an elegaic cello solo played eloquently by Jameson Platte, sets apart the opera’s last scene. The soliloquy by the older Thompson, now wearing a bathrobe and clutching his folded American flag, takes on the role of a coda. We’ve seen the painful trajectory of his life. Now the other characters fade away, leaving his anger and grief to ricochet through his mind as an increasingly harsh light glares over the stark stage.