Composer Tom Cipullo has said he was attracted to the true story of Lt. Col. Jim Thompson, the longest-held American prisoner of war in American history, as the subject of an opera, because it was so dramatic.
Dramatic is an understatement. In its operatic form, it is horrifying and devastating.
Thompson’s story, first recorded in print in the 2001 book Glory Denied, by Tom Philpott, and then in a stage work by Cipullo, made its local premiere at the Fort Worth Opera’s annual festival in April and May.
It was released on CD by Albany Records on Aug. 1.
This live recording of the FWO’s 2013 production, in McDavid Studio, is a flawed but valuable documentation of a powerful performance.
The show is divided into two acts (or tableaux) but is designed to be played without pause.
The cast includes just four characters (specifically, alternate versions of two characters) — Thompson and his wife, Alyce. Singer/actors Michael Mayes and Caroline Worra portray the older Jim and Alyce; David Blalock and Sydney Mancasola play them earlier in the story. All four are world-class singers and performers.
The drama of Glory Denied happens not just in the time Thompson spends in prison, but continues to the end, as he and his wife cope with new realities of life and love when he returns. It is a complex, contemporary work that many in the festival audience responded to physically and emotionally.
But it is impossible with a sound recording to duplicate the theater in such an intense drama as this.
Through the communicative power of opera, Cipullo puts his audience through the horror of a prisoner’s beatings, starvation and torture. On stage, these scenes were arresting. Not only did Blalock’s vocal treatment communicate his physical and emotional pain during the performance, but so did his physical winces, facial expressions and other body movements.
Stage props such as letters, magazines and a calendar were used to heighten the effects of time and tension from start to finish in the live performance.
Without any of these visuals, the impact is lost on the recording — even if you follow the libretto in the liner notes.
Likewise, in the live performance, all four singers appeared at the same time on a minimal but atmospherically dramatic stage; musically, they would give-and-take or trade soliloquies from beginning to end. In the theater, seeing the characters in the past and present simultaneously created the crux of the drama.
On the recording, once you’re familiar with the voices, you can follow which of the four is singing which part, but it’s not nearly as easy to follow the show as a whole. A cry of pain may be heard in the background, but lot of other things are going on in the fore; a blur of extremely high notes drowns the libretto of another character — where do your ears focus?
In short, a DVD recording — rather than a CD — would have worked better for this opera.
The top-notch quality of the performances cannot be overstated. All of the singers were pushed to the limits of vocal technique and range by the composer’s demands. He wrote passages that are angular and that leap from very low to nearly impossibly high.
In the theater, these voices had the resonance of the studio to round off the edges; on the recording, that resonance is lost, and at times, the singer’s position on stage affected the balance.
Cipullo’s score, also, is complex, and he changes time signature and pace nearly every measure. Conductor Tyson Deaton does an excellent job, as do the players of the small FWO orchestra assembled. In the theater, they were positioned against the back wall, which helped them accompany — and not compete with — with the singers. In the recording, the orchestra is front and center, and its sound is more chaotic, with little blend and lots of clatter.
A true highlight is the stunning aria sung by Worra as older Alyce, After You Hear Me Out. She bears her soul to the broken husband that fate returned to her, and it is every bit as touching as it was live.
All of these sonic reservations aside, this recording is a magnificent souvenir of an excellent production of a new opera by an opera company that cares deeply about new works.
It also introduces four wonderful singers and a superb conductor to a larger audience.