The Ballad of Baby Dyke
For those of us who feared that technicolor twaddle like Marco Polo and Ghosts of Versailles might signal the death rattle of native American opera, the premiere of Patience and Sarah is very good news indeed. As heard at the Lincoln Center Festival, this opera is in just about every way a success, with a movingly simple love story and tuneful and accessible music. The icing on the cake is that it is the first mainstream totally gay-themed opera ever.
This first opera for both composer Paula Kimper and librettist Wende Persons never sounds tentative or clumsy. Here are no big "operatic" moments or bombastic effects; Kimper and Persons hold our interest with unfolding scenes of quiet epiphany and understated conflict recalling the memory-play soft-focus style of Douglas Moore in The Ballad of Baby Doe. Kimper's style borrows from parlor songs and hymns in the white-key manner of Virgil Thomson, moving the dialogue along with arioso set to mildly Janacek-like ostinati. She set Persons' colloquial text with great sensitivity to the cadences of natural speech. The lyrical highlights include a charming and dramatically sensitive setting of the Lord's Prayer and a tear-jerking ballad for the lovesick Parson (Barton Green).
The opera is overlong. I hope the creators will consider abbreviating a couple of sequences involving Sarah's younger sister, intelligently performed by Laure Meloy but not strictly relevant to the story. As the opera now stands, Sarah is on stage almost non-stop for three hours; Elaine Valby's plaintive lyric mezzo-soprano tired a bit in Act 3. Otherwise she seemed born to this role with a charmingly gawky tomboy quality both in movement and singing. Her slender, almost pop-style instrument contrasted with the voluptuous spinto soprano of Lori Ann Phillips as Patience, Marschallin to Sarah's Oktavian. Ms. Phillips delivered a torrent of rich legato all the way to a pair of ringing high Cs as well as a warmly feminine "diva" presence -- a real star performance.
On paper, the finale of the opera sounds trite (the two women sing a reprise of their love theme as they sail off to a new life together), but in performance, the frankness and joy that the two leading ladies brought to this duet lent it the elemental heart-grabbing power of a Broadway ballad. Mr. Green was the standout among the featured players, spinning out ravishing lyric tenor lines. Conductor Steven Osgood sensitively set tempi that gave his singers plenty of room to phrase with freedom, and whipped the chamber orchestra into a suitably big sound for the finale.
Patience and Sarah has already found an audience among gay women who ordinarily do not attend the opera, but regular operagoers, gay and straight, will discover this gem soon enough. I wonder if there is an audience for Stephen Paulus's The Postman Always Rings Twice, finally heard in New York at the Center for Contemporary Opera more than 15 years since its premiere. This opera is written in a style that would have sounded reactionary in 1958, a pale echo of Benjamin Britten with a dash of stale Aaron Copland. Colin Graham's libretto is a gabble of tough talk, allowing little space for significant lyrical expansion -- except for a saccharine "show-tune with wrong notes" love duet in the second act. Baritone Shon Sims (Frank) came off best, with a well-placed and crisp baritone and excellent diction. He looked if anything too good for the seedy character, with WASPy fratboy chisled features and the body of a star college athlete. He boasted very clear diction, even managing to suggest a trace of midwestern accent in the sung lines, and he seemed comfortable and graceful on stage, a natural actor.
His partner in crime was Joy Hermalin as Cora, who coped the best she could with an unsympathetic vocal part, low-lying through most of Act One (revealing the mezzo's rich Broadway-style belt) but suddenly leaping into lyric soprano heights in Act Two, where she tended to sound breathy and under the pitch. Ms. Hermalyn is a handsome young woman who was not served well by costumer Lana Fritz: those cotton house dresses were even dowdier than the real thing. As the "greasy Greek" husband/murder victim, Richard Kosowksi looked too young, but did what he could with the interminable faux folk song Paulus assigned him. Keith Howard landed every word of his verbose role as a shifty DA.
I don't know this score at all, so I can only venture a guess that conductor Richard Marshall's interpretation was clean and precise, although with not enough "give" to allow the singers to inflect their vocal lines with the natural rhythms of speech. I wish director Charles Maryan had attempted a less naturalistic approach to the drama: Mr. Sims and Ms. Hermalyn seemed at a loss for meaningful movement in Arkin Pace's cramped sets.
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