Cher Public

Matchless!

You may have missed the announcement—because there hasn’t been one—but this is John Latouche Week in New York. 

Latouche, who died, far too young, in 1956, was the immensely clever lyricist for, among other things, Cabin in the Sky, Candide, The Golden Apple (to be revived by Encores! at City Center next week) and Douglas Moore’s great American opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, produced by the inventive Utopia Opera this weekend and next.

The Ballad of Baby Doe is best remembered as a vehicle that launched Beverly Sills towards stardom. The role was one of her breakout performances at the New York City Opera and her first commercial recording. The company revived the opera several times (there was a telecast), but it has failed to remain in the general repertory.

The opera’s obscurity is difficult to understand: Moore’s score has everything that could please and little that could offend. The libretto, based on a true American story of love and money, of rise and fall, is impressively tight considering that it covers 20 years. The melodies are attractive (the “Willow” song and the letter song, “Dearest Mama,” have become, thanks to Sills, pretty much standard in the American lyric soprano repertory, and the melodies are worthy of that place.)

The brief incidence of startling harmonies occur at appropriate moments of chaos in the story, the conversational scenes that may have seemed “unoperatic” (or too realistic) when the opera was new predicted the direction American opera would take in the decades that followed. The opera is full of lovely things and features three meaty leading roles and many likeable cameos. It should be a more regular visitor.

Utopia Opera plays in Hunter College’s Lang Recital Hall, the size of the living room in a not too ritzy duplex. This seems an unlikely venue for so grand a score, with its full orchestra and scenes of hotel lobbies, political rallies and grand Washington wedding receptions, but Utopia thrives on such challenges. An orchestra of fourteen (only five strings) fills a third of the stage and performs a decidedly cut-down version of the music. The set consists of four chairs and a number of late-nineteenth-century photographs of Colorado real estate on the sort of easel that used to introduce vaudeville acts.

There are twenty-nine named roles, and even with some doubling (the three leading roles are all double cast), the chorus has no room for the anonymous. The stage direction, by Gary Slavin, hits its marks inventively. The conductor is the company’s director, William Remmers, whose attention to detail matches his daring in choice of repertory. There are supertitles; they are sometimes, infrequently, necessary.

On the opening night, Saturday (the opera runs this weekend and the next), Baby Doe was sung by Angela Dinkelman, whose soprano sits very pleasantly in the middle voice where most of the role lies but rises prettily to the D’s and C-sharps as called for. She is a warm actress if not quite as flirtatious as the opening scenes seem to require, and she seemed short of breath in the final monologue over the dying Horace. But one believed in the sincerity of her love for him, and if that comes across and the silvery high notes are there, Baby Doe works for us.

Jack Anderson White had the plum role of Horace Tabor, and if it was hard to credit his pick-and-shovel past, his sturdy baritone was properly decisive and the self-delusion that leads him from triumph to bankruptcy sadly credible. His rather set expression seemed properly that of a man who refuses to listen when disagreed with.

In many ways, the balance to the opera’s heroine is the near-tragic figure of Augusta, Horace’s prim, later furious, first wife. Frances Bible used to munch the entire City Opera stage with this part and her powerhouse mezzo. Elizabeth Bouk has the ill luck to be just as tall and blonde and pretty as Dinkelman’s Baby Doe, disadvantages she met by tying her hair in a severe bun and tottering on a cane in Act II.

She almost brought it off. Her voice is attractive if slightly underpowered—the orchestra sometimes drowned her out, and she did not really sell such moments as the discovery, when reading a letter of Horace’s, of the name of her rival, or her tremendous warning: “Sell the Matchless Mine!” Here, the unfairness perhaps is mine—by the time I saw Bible sing the role, she’d had years to work out just which notes and syllables would knock us off our feet and she looked like a tanker. Bouk simply requires more experience with this splendid role to achieve its effect.

Among the many, many supporting roles, I was particularly pleased with the four ladies who play Augusta’s cronies, egging her on to destroy her faithless husband. But Moore wrote these roles as a bit of ill-natured Greek chorus, like the similar gossips who deplore his Susannah. They are ripe for the plucking. The ladies of Utopia Opera had a grand time. The four card sharps who turn their backs on bankrupt Horace weren’t enjoying themselves quite so much

  • PATRICK MACK

    This is a beautiful review John and I particularly enjoyed your memories of Frances Bible. Did you actually see Sills in the role?
    I also think it’s a piece that doesn’t get proper attention.

    • John Yohalem

      As you may notice, I never describe Sills in the role. Why do you think I did not?

      • John Yohalem

        (The roles which I SAW Sills perform were Konstanze, Cleopatra, Lucia, Queen Marguerite, Marie, the three Tudor Queens, the three Hoffmann ladies, Adele, Lucrezia Borgia, Rosina, Manon, Thais and Elvira Walton. She pulled a Caballe when I had tickets to her Violetta. I REGRET not seeing her Violetta, Baby Doe, Pamira and Donna Anna.)

        • Camille

          How could you have missed the Pamira? Out of the country?

          • John Yohalem

            I was moving to San Francisco that day.

        • MisterSnow

          Adele? Was that the San Diego Fledermaus with Sutherland? I saw that one too thanks to a costume designer friend who got me how seats. Thought Regina Resnick was the real star of the show. She really dominated the stage though I was amazed how short she was.

  • Dana Corby

    I haven’t thought about this opera in years. When I lived in Idaho lots of years ago I did some of the makeup for the Boise Opera’s “Ballad of Baby Doe.” One of my friends was in the chorus, which is how I got involved, and for the performance I lent her a delicate gold and amethyst pendant my grandmother gave me, which had started out as one of Baby Doe’s earrings.

    • John Yohalem

      So what did you think of the score?
      I’m eager to know the opinion of someone who is not an opera-goer!

      • Dana Corby

        I enjoyed it very much! Beyond that I can’t really comment, as I have virtually no musical education — what little I know was picked up by osmosis.

        • John Yohalem

          But you’re a musician!
          And it’s not “operatic” in a distancing sense — it’s an American story told in American styles.

          • Dana Corby

            Ha-ha-ha-ha! John, I play folk music. 5 chords, tops. And I can’t read music.

  • I have seen Baby Doe several times — NYC, Hartford, Boston — there was a time here in the New York/New England area when it was produced fairly frequently. It’s an opera with the accessibility of a musical, highly theatrical with a number of grateful roles, and is capped by Baby’s lovely, deeply felt ode to her deceased Horace (aka, “the Leadville Liebestod”).

    • Camille

      Yes, there was a time when it was produced fairly regularly, wasn’t there?
      It does seems a tad strange to me that this opera’s popularity may have waned a bit and wonder the whyfore of this change. Maybe just not the right protagonist who makes a meal of it?

      Hopefully, I will get a different cast when I go, as they usually do vary them. It IS amazing what they manage to pull off in that small space, I must say.

      • John Yohalem

        Why hopefully? This was a fine cast.

        • Camille

          Because the B cast in Zigeunerbaron was, I suspect from what you wrote, the better of the two. I always go for B casts in any case. Nevermind.

          • John Yohalem

            I’m sorry there wasn’t time to go back for the B cast of Zigeunerbaron, and I’m sorry I was in a jet-lag-induced mood when I saw it. They weren’t BAD.

            • Camille

              Oh, not necessary to defend yourself at all as impressions are all so ephemeral and so subjective. I’m sorry you were jet-lagged at performance, as being tired can put the damper on the best otherwise evening. Once, I had sushi poisoning at Parsifal, and was THAT an Orrore.

  • MisterSnow

    Although the Willow song and Dearest Mama are featured in many collections, I think the Silver aria is equally as good.