If you had asked me those questions over forty years ago when I first saw the opera with the late, great Beverly Sills (the first to record the title role and still its best-known performer), I’d probably have gone with “American classic.” Now that I’ve seen what is, surprisingly, the St. Louis premiere, I’m more inclined towards “a little of both.”
Douglas Moore’s score, while conservative by 1950s classical music standards (we were still suffering the scourge of Serialism back then), is nevertheless right in the mainstream of what most people are accustomed to hearing and has provided a number of memorable and often-recorded arias, particularly for the title character. Many of the ensemble scenes, as well, have considerable dramatic impact.
John Latouche’s libretto, on the other hand, has not worn well over the last half century. Based on the real-life love affair between Elizabeth “Baby Doe” McCourt and Colorado silver magnate Horace Tabor in the late 1800s, the opera chronicles Tabor’s affair with Baby Doe, his divorce from his wife Augusta and subsequent marriage to Baby Doe, the damage the resulting scandal did to his political career, and Tabor’s eventual ruin when America went off the silver standard and the bottom fell out of his investments. Baby Doe stuck with him through it all, eventually dying in poverty in a cabin on the property of Tabor’s Matchless Mine, having promised her dying husband that she would never give it up.
Baby Doe’s “stand by your man” naïveté is historically accurate, and it’s clear that Latouche expects his audience to find her sympathetic. Back in the 1950s—when the popular view of a woman’s proper place in society hadn’t advanced that much from the 1890s—that might have been reasonable. Today, however, it’s hard to take a character who behaves like a doormat seriously, especially when the libretto tells us so little of her inner life and background.
There’s a similar problem with Horace’s character. Until the final scene, in which he hallucinates events from his past life, he’s little more than a stage cliché: the older man who falls for a younger woman and suffers for it. Up to that point, we have no idea why he did what he did, and by the time we find out, it’s too late to make his character truly tragic. Ditto Baby Doe, who remains something of a cipher to the end. Indeed, the most fully realized and most clearly tragic person in the opera is Horace’s divorced wife Augusta.
With that kind of baggage, a production of “The Ballad of Baby Doe” needs to have both solid musical and dramatic values and, frankly, plenty of money for lavish sets and costumes to work. You need real flash to compensate for what is, in my view, dated and theatrically clumsy material.
The Winter Opera production boasted some fine singing actors, especially in the central roles, but some of the cameo parts were noticeably weaker than the leads. The minimal set pieces served as a reminder that (as conductor Steven Jarvi pointed out in his curtain speech) this is a company operating on a small budget. Those small sets also forced stage director David Carl Toulson to cram his actors into smallish playing areas, and while he came up with some ingenious solutions to that problem, much of his blocking did not seem to be related to the dramatic shape of the scenes. I often felt that actors were moving just to avoid having them stand still. The sometimes ill-fitting costumes were also a distraction.
But enough of that. Musically, Winter Opera’s “Baby Doe” was mostly very impressive. In the title role, company Artistic Director Gina Galati was in generally good voice when we saw the show on Sunday, running into trouble only when she had to swoop up to a high note, at which point her voice sometimes became harsh and metallic. She was at her best in Baby Doe’s more lyrical moments and her final aria, “Always Through the Changing,” was very affecting.
Baritone Adelmo Guidarelli was a first-rate Horace Tabor; not surprising, given that he’s one of the few opera singers who can lay claim to a MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs) award for a cabaret show. You don’t get that without some theatre smarts. Lindsey Anderson, who was such a fine Katisha in Winter Opera’s “Mikado” last year, turned out yet another outstanding performance as Augusta Tabor. Yes, she’s one of the few singers helped rather than hindered by the libretto, but it was still a nicely nuanced portrayal.
The rest of the singers ranged from excellent to adequate. The chorus sounded fine in the ensemble numbers as did the orchestra overall, despite the occasional intonation problem with the brasses.
In the final analysis, I think Winter Opera should be congratulated for bringing what is (at least) a historically significant work to town for the first time. If the result wasn’t entirely successful, the fault lay more with the material than with its presentation. Winter Opera is a welcome presence on the local music scene, and I hope they continue to prosper and take on risky projects as well as the more mainstream stuff.
Speaking of which, Winter Opera’s season continues with Puccini’s “Tosca” March 8 and 10. Performances take place at the splendid Skip Viragh Center on the Chaminade campus on Lindbergh just north of I-64. For more information: winteroperastl.org.