Frederica von Stade in "A Coffin in Egypt" at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. (Lynn Lane)
At first reading, the title of the chamber opera “A Coffin in Egypt” might bring visions of the opera “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni which takes place in ancient Egypt. But this storyline takes place in Egypt, Texas and it comes from the play “In a Coffin in Egypt” (1980) written by American playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter (To Kill a Mockingbird) Horton Foote, who also won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1995 for his play “The Young Man From Atlanta.”
In the title role of the 90-year old Myrtle Bledsoe is legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, or “Flicka” as her fans call her, whose career spans more than 40 years. Her debut came at The Metropolitan Opera House in 1970.
Born in Somerville, N.J., von Stade was trained in the “bel canto” style and has over 60 recordings under her belt including some from the Broadway repertoire; she’s been nominated for six Grammy Awards.
The literal meaning of “mezzo-soprano” is half of a soprano, “mezzo” being the Italia word for one half. Now there was nothing “half” about the non-stop 90-minute “tour de force” performance by von Stade on Tuesday night at The Bram Goldsmith Theater, which is part of The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (The Wallis) in Beverly Hills.
This chamber opera is unique in many ways in that it features a wonderful small orchestra conducted by Kathleen Kelly who manages to get a full, round sound out of 8 musicians and a minimalist but creative stage design by Cuban-American Riccardo Hernandez (IL Postino the opera), with Lighting Design by Brian Nason.
The opening scene has Myrtle Bledsoe (von Stade) creating a painting on an easel with several rocking chairs in a raised platform with steps behind her. Three undulating walls flank the stage where projections of enlarged images of cotton fields allude to the location of Texas, a southern state and the theme of racism (which is part of the story).
Enter a gospel chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy (soprano), Laura Elizabeth Patterson (alto), James M. Winslow (tenor) and Jawan CM Jenkins (bass) holding hymnal books and singing African-American spirituals while walking in unison in a single file. This chorus will appear in several pivotal moments in the story to add not only context and meaning, but to help break the one and a half hour sung soliloquy by von Stade.
There is something remarkable to see and hear an opera artist sing almost continuously for 90 minutes with the intensity and nuance that von Stade brings to this role while staying true to character. Her voice is clear, strong when enraged over her husband’s continuous infidelity with a “mulatto” (bi-racial) prostitute, amongst other women, but soft and gentle as she remembers some of the few happy times in her life.
As in most opera stories, tragedy and drama are the main components of the story, and in her 90 years of life Myrtle Bledsoe has had many: Her unrequited love for her husband Hunter, the two murders committed by family members, the deaths of all her children and family before her own death. But. most importantly, there is her loneliness.
There were multiple acting appearances by David Matranga (Hunter Bledsoe), Carolyn Johnson (Elsie Bledsoe and Clerk), Adam Noble (Captain Lawson) and Cecilia Duarte (Jessie Lydell), whose characters added bodies and dialogue to the production but would have been better served with even small sung parts.
The music by American Obie winner (Orpheus and Euridice) composer Ricky Ian Gordon is lyrical and pleasant but sometimes too similar in structure and tone. There were a few segments one could call “arias,” one when von Stade was joined by the chorus and the other when she sang about wearing a red dress – which she considered a whore’s color. On the other hand, the lyrics by librettist/director Leonard Foglia were crisp, clear and at moments very poetic, especially with help from the words of the spirituals sung by the chorus.
“A Coffin in Egypt” runs through April 27.