GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Berkshire Opera Festival returned to fully staged opera before a live audience in July with composer Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied. The production, like the opera, pulled no punches.
Cipullo was inspired to create the chamber opera after reading a New York Times review of Tom Philpott’s 2001 book Glory Denied. It is the true story of Floyd James “Jim” Thompson, a Green Beret who retired from the Army with the rank of colonel in 1982. Thompson was held in captivity nearly nine years, in camps and prisons in South Vietnam, Laos, and North Vietnam. But unlike most returning POWs, Thompson didn’t come home to a hero’s welcome. Only his wife Alyce was there to greet him, and a part of her had hoped he was long dead.
Philpott interviewed 160 people and included the voices of 90 of them in his book. For his opera, Cipullo focuses only on Jim and Alyce, although four characters portray them in youth and middle age. There are no heroes in the opera, only ordinary people whose lives were inexorably changed forever by war.
Thompson was an all-American boy; God and country were important to him. He married young and was the father of three daughters. Alyce was pregnant with their fourth child when he deployed for a six-month tour of duty in Vietnam in December 1963. The observation plane in which he was a passenger was shot down on March 26, 1964. The next day, Alyce was informed that her husband was missing, and the shock sent her into labor. Their son was born that evening.
Jim and Alyce divorced a year after his return, and he was estranged from all of his children at the time of his death in 2002. His change of feeling toward Alyce was understandable: During his absence, she had moved in with another man, tried to have him declared legally dead, and refused permission to have his name appear on a POW war bracelet. A tragic hero of Shakespearean stature, Thompson suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. The deeds of the parents were likewise visited upon their children, some of whom led equally tragic, thwarted lives.
Stage director Sarah Meyers’ vision for Glory Denied was given shape by the ingenious triangular set conceived by Cameron Anderson. At its narrowest point was the small, dark cell where Thompson was held prisoner, while at the other end was a room in the older Thompson’s apartment. In between were spaces for Alyce as a young housewife and as a mature woman. The furnishings were nondescript, but alcoves in the three larger rooms held a typewriter for Young Alyce, a telephone for Older Alyce, and Older Jim’s medal- and ribbon-bedecked dress uniform. There was no space for anything but Young Jim, crouched up in a ball, in his part of the triangle.
Three members of the cast — tenor John Riesen and sopranos Maria Valdes and Caroline Worra — are veterans of previous productions of the 2007 opera. That’s not unusual in the standard repertoire, but Glory Denied has been mounted by more than 15 opera houses, and the strength of BOF’s cast is a product of that.
As Younger Jim, Riesen glowed with his love of Alyce, whom he idealized as the soft, docile woman of his dreams and the mother of his children, thoughts that kept him alive during his captivity. Every inch the hero in stature and voice, Riesen could express the sweetest of emotions or become rapier-sharp with indignation or defiance when he was roused by demons real or imagined.
Older Jim was not an endearing character in real life, and Cipullo doesn’t sugarcoat him in the opera. There was no term then for what was going on inside his head, however, as the words Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were not used until 1980, seven years after he had returned from Vietnam.
Baritone Daniel Belcher was the exceptionally fine singer and actor who brought this complex man to life. In his portrayal of Older Jim, nothing remained of the strong, virile, optimistic young soldier. Anger and frustration fueled him as much as his rock-solid knowledge that he was a hero. The ache in the man’s heart over all he lost was revealed through the beauty of Belcher’s voice in passages where nostalgia rather than rage consumed Older Jim.
As Young Alyce, Maria Valdes was a vision of Fifties-style domesticity, all lovely and soft with the innocence and charm of Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy.” Cipullo has a penchant for long, sustained high notes, and Valdes floated them effortlessly. She was the vocal and dramatic counter to the high-octane characters, the embodiment of what might have been.
Cipullo has written that one of his challenges in creating the opera was making Older Alyce into a real, comprehensive, three-dimensional person. His hopes were likely exceeded by Worra’s towering characterization, which transcended mere mortal. The structure of the set put Worra center stage, but it was her voice and powerful acting that made her Older Alyce a force of nature. Rather than Penelope patiently waiting for the return of Ulysses, Worra was Electra railing against the fates. The sounds that poured out of her were like flows of red-hot lava with sparks flying in all directions that scorched everything they touched.
The story’s impact was heightened by the placement of the orchestra behind the set. Cipullo’s score is a mix of lyricism and stridency. He’s not afraid to write pretty music that might be at home in Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables. Geoffrey Larson conducted with passion and precision, and together with cast and orchestra delivered the drama, as well as the beauty, of Cipullo’s score.
Many in the audience, including me, remember the Sixties and Seventies. Few historical references failed to prompt a memory or reaction. Glory Denied, however, isn’t a history lesson. It’s an opera, and the Berkshire Opera Festival revealed its power in this remarkable production.
Rick Perdian had an international career in law and insurance that took him to Switzerland, Singapore, and China. He contributes regularly to Seen and Heard International and MusicWeb International. He writes program notes for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. His articles on music and travel have appeared in the Global Times and Shanghai Daily. In 2020, he was supposed to be leading musical tours in Europe and the United States but instead spent his time reviewing online performance.