Cryptic Actors Drive Final Nail Into ‘Coffin’ Opera

Myrtle Bledsoe (Frederica von Stade) reminisces about her life in the Houston Grand Opera premiere of 'A Coffin in Egypt.'  (Production photos by Lynn Lane, Houston Grand Opera)
The aged Myrtle Bledsoe (Frederica von Stade) reminisces while a “gospel chorus” comments in ‘A Coffin in Egypt.’
(Production photos by Lynn Lane, Houston Grand Opera)
By Mike Greenberg

HOUSTON – What on earth were they thinking?

They being the composer Ricky Ian Gordon and the librettist Leonard Foglia, collaborators on a chamber-opera version of Horton Foote’s one-woman play, A Coffin in Egypt. The great mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, still in resplendent voice, came out of retirement to anchor Houston Grand Opera’s world-premiere staging, which opened March 14 in the 1,100-seat Cullen Theater in the Wortham Theater Center. The show is a co-production with Opera Philadelphia and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Frederica von Stade came out of retirement to play Myrtle.
Frederica von Stade came out of retirement to play Myrtle Bledsoe.

Texas playwright Foote, best known as the author of  The Trip to Bountiful, wrote A Coffin in Egypt in 1980.  Its central character is 90-year-old widow Myrtle Bledsoe, who looks back upon her life – seven years of glamour as a great beauty traveling the world followed by  decades of disappointment in fictional Egypt, Texas, as the wife of a rich cotton farmer, Hunter, who had a taste for mulatto women and teen-aged girls.

In the flow and eddies of Myrtle’s memory and in Foote’s deeply musical use of language, there is ample grist for opera. Gordon sometimes rises to the occasion with arias of soaring lyricism – when, for example, Myrtle recalls her first sight of the Texas prairie, or her love for the color red. Gordon and Foglia complement the solo role fairly effectively with a “gospel quartet” that serves as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on Myrtle’s story with songs that draw from many musical wells – gospel, jazz, pop, and Renaissance madrigal styles. (The excellent quartet comprises soprano Cheryl D. Clansy, alto Laura Elizabeth Patterson, tenor James M. Winslow, and bass Jawan CM Jenkins.)

Gordon’s vocal lines fit the singers nicely, and his scoring for an orchestra of nine (conducted by Timothy Myers) is resourceful. But apart from a few moments, the music has a gauzy quality that compresses the emotional range and flattens the dramatic arc. Myrtle’s rage and resentment and self-absorption never seem real. The musical stakes are too low.

Myrtle (von Stade) meets Hunter (David Matranga) in a flashback.
Myrtle confronts Hunter (David Matranga) in a flashback.

Far worse, however, was the bizarre choice to add non-singing actors to the mix. Stretches of clunkily staged spoken dialogue between Myrtle and Hunter (the actor David Matranga) in flashbacks frequently interrupt the music and stall the little momentum the music is able to muster. Other characters – some speaking, some not – pull attention away from Myrtle’s interior life.

Foglia, who also served as stage director for this production, has a direct connection to the source material: He also was the director of a 1998 production of the Foote play with Glynis Johns. Still, in the operatic version he did not deploy the extra baggage in a way that justified its presence.

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon wrote the opera with Leonard Foglia.
Gordon’s opera is also destined for Philadelphia and Beverly Hills.

More insightful than the stage direction is the set by Riccardo Hernández. High curving walls painted with giant cotton plants fold into each other to suggest the isolation and confinement in which Myrtle has lived most of her life.

But the production was most memorable for von Stade’s singing – gloriously plump and rich at full voice in the high register, insinuating and expressively colored down below, with only a few rough patches to betray her character’s age. Which raises a question: Why did she retire in the first place? What on earth was she thinking?

The production runs through March 21. For details, click here.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of  The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.