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Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe [Photo by Lynn Lane]
26 Apr 2014

A Coffin in Egypt: A Tour-de-Force for von Stade

Librettist Leonard Foglia based his elegant and literate text on the late Horton Foote’s play, A Coffin in Egypt, and the opera has the original play’s dramatic punch.

Ricky Ian Gordon’s New Opera: A Tour-de-Force for Von Stade

A review by Maria Nockin

Above: Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Photos by Lynn Lane


Foglia who wrote the libretto and directed the opera, also directed the world premiere of the original play.

On April 23, 2014, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts gave the West Coast premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera, A Coffin in Egypt. Known as The Wallis, the Beverly Hills complex opened in 2013. Thus, it was the perfect place for an even newer opera. Houston, Texas, audiences saw Gordon’s opera last March and Philadelphia audiences will see it in June. Librettist Leonard Foglia based his elegant and literate text on the late Horton Foote’s play of the same name and the opera has the original play’s dramatic punch. Foglia who wrote the libretto and directed the opera, had directed the world premiere of the original play.

Musically, this is a chamber opera that uses the smallest possible forces: one soloist, a quartet of Gospel Singers, and nine instrumentalists. In this case, the soloist was the world famous mezzo-soprano, Frederica von Stade, who came out of retirement to assume the juicy role that Gordon wrote for her. Myrtle Bledsoe was a rich Texas widow who lived in the tiny hamlet of Egypt, near Wharton, where Horton Foote grew up in the early years of the twentieth century. Wharton is on the east side of the Colorado River, about forty-five miles north of the Gulf of Mexico.

Coffin_in_Egypt_02.gifFrederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe and Adam Noble as the Captain

In her ninth decade, Myrtle recounts her life with its many unfulfilled dreams. Although the title speaks of death and Myrtle is old, she is as lively as a firecracker in designer Riccardo Hernández’s bright rose-colored gown. Hernández’s scenery showed flowers on curved surfaces and Brian Nason’s imaginative lighting design added strong colors that enhanced various aspects of the story.

Actually, it is von Stade’s magnetic personality that makes this charming piece come alive. Myrtle recounts her life with her husband, Hunter, and her happiest years abroad with her daughters. She also tells of her husband’s mistresses and the murder with which he was never charged. She can speak freely now because Hunter and her daughters have all preceded her in death. She alone is left to tell the stories, but she knows she will soon join them, in her own coffin, destined to be buried in Egypt. Actors represent the characters of whom she sings. David Matranga was the womanizing Hunter Bledsoe and Adam Noble the handsome Captain Lawson. Carolyn Johnson was Elsie Bledsoe and Cecilia Duarte Jessie Lydell.

The opera is a tour-de-force for mezzo and von Stade’s performance on Wednesday evening is proof that she retired too soon. She was on stage for the full eighty minutes of the opera’s duration, singing almost constantly with well-focused tones. Her voice was always a bit light for a mezzo and on this occasion it had a clarion quality that blended with the woodwinds of conductor Kathleen Kelly’s chamber group. Gordon’s music was very translucent and Kelly’s players brought out his delightful harmonies.

Gordon’s most inventive addition was a Gospel Chorus singing music he composed in the manner of old time Spirituals. For this piece, that addition was sheer genius. Best of all, the singers: soprano Sheryl D. Clansy, alto Laura Elizabeth Patterson, tenor James M. Winslow, and bass Jawan C. M. Jenkins sang in glorious harmonies which formed a delightful contrast to Myrtle’s solo storytelling. Clansy, in particular, has a spectacular voice that should be heard by a wider audience.

Coffin_in_Egypt_03.gifCecilia Duarte as Jessie, Frederica von Stade as Myrtle, and the Gospel Singers

A Coffin in Egypt is a new piece that is quickly winning acceptance in the cities where it has been shown. It will be in Philadelphia in June and from there it should go on to the many theaters in cities large and small that need a well put together opera on a small scale.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade; Hunter Bledsoe, David Matranga; Elsie/ Clerk, Carolyn Johnson; Jessie Lydell, Cecilia Duarte; Captain Lawson, Adam Noble; Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan C. M. Jenkins; Gospel Chorus Director, Bethany Self; Conductor, Kathleen Kelly; Stage Director, Leonard Foglia; Set and Costume Designer, Riccardo Hernández; Lighting Designer, Brian Nason.

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