You could hardly find a more stark contrast than that between the first two entries in the Fort Worth Opera's 2013 festival. La Boheme, which opened in Bass Hall on Saturday night, is a work of lush music and tender emotions. Glory Denied, which opened Sunday afternoon in McDavid Studio, is a powerful drama of great music and acting intensity. They are as different as 2013 is from 1896.
In Glory Denied, composer and librettist Tom Cipullo tells the story of Lt. Col. Jim Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history. Thompson endured almost nine years of torture and deprivation in North Vietnam, and then faced psychological pain and the breakup of his marriage while trying to adjust to civilian life upon his return.
In telling the story, Cipullo uses only four characters -- or more precisely, alternate versions of two characters: Thompson and his wife, Alyce. Singer/actors Michael Mayes and Caroline Worra are the older Jim and Alyce, David Blalock and Sydney Mancasola portray them earlier in the story.
As a drama, Glory Denied scores on many points. All four of the performers are top-notch actors, generating tension that is almost painful at times. The music, both vocal and instrumental (a small orchestra is directed by Tyson Deaton), is another tension-generator. There is not much lyricism here, but the atmosphere is compelling.
One thing that brings a strong sense of isolation to the piece is that Cipullo, for much of the opera, gives his characters soliloquies rather than duets, trios or quartets. Even when all characters are singing at once, they are reflecting within themselves rather than interacting with each other. Only in a few instances, and mostly beyond the halfway point, do they confront each other -- then they are quickly alone again.
McDavid Studio, which is across from the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall on Calhoun Street, is a much smaller space. For Glory Denied, the audience is seated on temporary risers and chairs in a semicircle around the stage. The orchestra closes the circle. The configuration makes for great intimacy in the performance, as well as high decibels in one scene with violently slammed trunk lids.
The clever set design by Richard Kagey and subtle touches by director Dean Anthony emphasize the sense of isolation. The characters are seated in wide separation from each other, with one central table and a few appropriate props, including a vintage model tape recorder on which characters record their testimony and a calendar from which Alyce tears sheets to mark the dreary passage of time.
Sunday afternoon's performance contained one significant flaw. The libretto is in English, of course, but there was no text projection and the words were often not understandable, especially in some of the most intense moments. As pitch rose and dynamics increased, comprehension declined. Ensemble passages made the problem worse. Although it wasn't a fatal problem, greater clarity would have enhanced the performance.
Glory Denied continues in McDavid Studio Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. through May 11. See fwopera.org. The opera lasts about 80 minutes without intermission. A "debriefing" session of about 30 minutes follows each performance. Audience members may ask questions of the cast and other principals.