Review by Robert Pond
The Anchorage Opera’s latest and most significant offering is Glory Denied from Tom Philpott’s book on Capt. Floyd James Thompson’s endurance as a Viet Nam POW and what is termed as repatriation. The very title of this evening’s opera defines the Viet Nam War. By most accounts, it was a bad and unnecessary war. To our shame, we held the returning warriors responsible instead of the ill-advised policy makers. One might suggest that for ¾ of a century, we haven’t as yet learned that ‘never again’ may just be a myth.
Tom Cipullo’s adaptation of Philpott’s work into an opera is courageous and the Anchorage’s Opera production, in particular, is as courageous as it is inventive. Grand Opera, in general, is trying to escape the 19th century, which lingered through the 20th with Puccini and Menotti trying to evolve the art closer to the legitimate theatre.
Glory Denied is the dramatization of Floyd and Alyce Thompson during and after the ‘Nam war. There are two singers playing the younger Thompson couple and two other singers who are the Thompsons at an older age. This works better than one would expect, especially with the cultural changes affecting the opera’s pre and post war couple.
For many of opera traditionalist, we are too often afraid that the evolution of the newer opera art, will attract the influence of the 12-tone atonalities of Schoenberg and Stravinsky in depicting the non-linear structure of works such as Tom Cipullo’s modern opera — dry-brushed with Menotti? For the most part, the music does in fact work with its tonal punctuations and only infrequently ventures from the excellent libretto. There are times, as with the younger Alyce Thompson character, when the vocal gymnastics in the music leave our character- not unlike the coloraturas of the Bel Canto days.
There are reasons that Glory Denied works well. Ms [Helena] Binder’s directorial design serves the complicated work successfully because the production, for the most part is in balance. The core language of music does not, in Cipullo’s work, rob from the powerful libretto. The scenic design by Scott Holdredge is simple and fluid; there are no laborious scene changes as the large movable panels and the video on them bring us to where we need to be. The lighting by Sean Amato and Jody Luce’s costume design completed the production’s pallet.
Most rewarding were the performing artists. Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost presented us with a small but a very able orchestra. And, among the evening’s gifts to us were opera singers who could act and act well. This enabled the seriousness of the piece to be genuine. There were times, probably by design, that the characters broke from their interrelationships on stage to that of singing directly to the audience. Among the talents that delivered Glory Denied was the youthful baritone Gregory Gerbrandt who played the older Floyd Thompson. Gerbrandt was certainly convincing as the troubled Captain wanting to recapture what was. The voice of soprano Jennifer Goode Cooper, along with her good acting, gave us an older and very complicated Alyce. Kevin Newell, in his clear spinto like tenor voice, delivers the younger character of Floyd Thompson so well. Ashly Neumann, as the younger Alyce, has a lovely and strong soprano voice; she is well trained and very comfortable with her technique. It’s enthralling to see her surgically pick a note out of the stratosphere and bring it effortlessly to a soft landing.
Just when the Viet Nam experience is drifting towards distant history, Tom Cipullo’s opera helps to keep the issues that allowed ‘Nam as relevant. Additionally, Glory Denied is showing us the road where opera needs to travel to find its new voice.
Glory Denied is an important work and the Anchorage Opera needs to be encouraged to include such works in their future programming.