Posted by: operatheaterink | April 29, 2014

Review: ‘A Coffin in Egypt,’ Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, April 29, 2014

The Wallis Breaks In Opera with the Great Frederica von Stade.

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe
(Photo by Lynn Lane)

SEEN APRIL 25, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

It was my first time at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on April 25. What a relief it was for me not to have to travel to hear opera. “A Coffin in Egypt” was the first opera to be performed at the Wallis, and it was the opera’s West Coast premiere.

But the reason I wanted to write this short review is totally due to the bravura performance of the opera’s star: the legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Although she is technically retired, “A Coffin in Egypt” has given her the opportunity to literally perform a one-woman show, and every one of her almost 90 minutes onstage was brilliant.

A chamber opera, “A Coffin in Egypt” was composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Leonard Foglia, who is directing it. I say “is” because the opera had its world premiere with the Houston Grand Opera, traveled to Beverly Hills to the Wallis on April 23, 25 and 27, and it goes to Opera Philadelphia next.

Von Stade has graced the world with her magnificent vocal cords for many years. But most singers are not actors with the range of Helen Mirren or Judi Dench. Singers concentrate on singing, but von Stade not only sings to perfection, her fine acting enables her to create a tour-de-force character study as well.

She plays Myrtle Bledsoe, a 90-year-old woman from Egypt, Texas, who reminisces about the challenges of her life and missed opportunities, portrayed in flashback. Her husband, Hunter Bledsoe, has spent the majority of their married life being unfaithful to her. He has killed the father of one of his mistresses and gets away with it.

So Myrtle travels to Europe, is romanced by an Algerian sheik, waltzes elegantly with a captain in uniform, and almost goes to Hollywood to become an actress. She raises two daughters who have marriage problems of their own. Her husband and daughters have died. Only her caretaker is left there to listen.

What makes von Stade so miraculous is that she truly becomes Myrtle Bledsoe while maintaining a flawless sound with rich lows and resonant highs. In fact, this opera has spoken dialogue, and due to those chesty lows, when she speaks, the dialogue just flows forth and the audience is never jolted. She sings and speaks with a Texas accent. And every utterance, movement and facial expression is a key to her soul. She is brilliant.

At times the opera seems reminiscent of August Strindberg’s “The Stronger.” Myrtle seems to have a bit of Blanche DuBois in her as well, or even Amanda from Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” But Myrtle remains regal and strong in her red flowing caftan, with each hesitant wobbly step defining her stature and age.

The music is interesting — at times lyrical and melodic as is the last sequence with the gospel choir, which is very effective throughout. At other times, the score is more metallic and atonal which acts as an accompaniment to depict Myrtle’s devastation.

The libretto is like the words of a playwright. The opera is based on a play by Horton Foote.

Von Stade has all of the ingredients of a great actress. Her moments of spoken dialogue are among her most revealing. She uses her trained vocal instrument to color the poetry of her spoken sound.

The non-singing actors are excellent. Conductor Kathleen Kelly rules. Riccardo Hernández’s minimalistic set is gracefully floral and tasteful.

The musical play comes together at the end with forgiveness. Myrtle forgives herself although she has done nothing wrong. But maybe she has also allowed herself to forgive those who hurt her.

Von Stade’s performance is thought-provoking and touching. Myrtle isn’t ready for a coffin in Egypt. She lives to see the light of another day with a freer spirit. And so must we all.

Conductor: Kathleen Kelly
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set and Costume Design: Riccardo Hernández
Lighting Designer: Brian Nason
Sound Designer: Andrew Harper
Gospel Chorus Director: Bethany Self

Actors: David Matranga (Hunter), Carolyn Johnson (Elsie/Clerk), Cecilia Duarte (Jessie Lydell), Adam Noble (Captain Lawson)

Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins

Adam Noble and Frederica von Stade

Adam Noble and Frederica von Stade
(Photo by Lynn Lane)

Frederica von Stade and Carolyn Johnson

Frederica von Stade and Carolyn Johnson

(Photo by Lynn Lane)