Review: A Coffin in Egypt is Dead on Arrival

Despite an extraordinary performance by 68-year-old Frederica von Stade, the HGO world premiere opera falls flat.

By Sydney Boyd March 18, 2014

Myrtle, Frederica von Stade

A Coffin in Egypt
Thru March 21
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave

The Houston Grand Opera can brag about some impressive world premieres—John Adams’s Nixon in China and Meredith Monk’s Atlas come to mind. Unfortunately, A Coffin in Egypt, based on a play by Horton Foote with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Leonard Foglia, is not one of them.

Co-commissioned and produced by HGO, Opera Philadelphia, and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the opera tells the story of ninety-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, the last member of her family in Egypt, Texas—an actual town near Wharton, where Horton Foote grew up. Over the course of the opera, Myrtle reflects back on her long life, introducing a series of extended flashbacks. We first see her as a wealthy, beautiful, proud young bride who is humiliated when her husband Hunter begins an interracial affair. To get away from Hunter, Myrtle takes her two daughters abroad for seven years, during the course of which she gets romantically involved with a sheik in Algiers and learns to paint in Paris. Hunter, a simple man, scorns Myrtle’s artistic pursuits when she returns and begins another affair with a young white girl which will ultimately end in tragedy. 

A Coffin in Egypt begins and ends with a bitter woman marooned in a small town, reviewing her life. Structured by recollection, it makes sense for the story to jump around. But even a disjointed narrative can be captivating—this opera lands flat and stays there. Even so, Frederica von Stade, a legendary mezzo-soprano who came out of retirement to sing the part of Myrtle, is magnificent. Von Stade made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970. In contrast to the character she sings, whose charm diminishes with time, von Stade’s own glamour only seems to grow with each passing year. Her voice is a dream to listen to—soaring with ease, never a note out of place. By turns passionate and reflective, von Stade proved a formidable one-woman force. A voice of her talent and experience is rare—she’s a sensation you won’t want to miss.

Jesse, Cecilia Duarte; Myrtle, Frederica von Stade; Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins

If only the music and libretto were equally strong. Foglia’s unimaginative text fails to capture the poetic language of Foote’s play. “When the moon was full / I would ride across the prairie and cry and cry and cry” is a typical line. With a little more finesse, the lack of a clear narrative arc could have made room for a cyclical structure. Gordon’s score certainly followed a pattern of leitmotifs, pushing and pulling tempos to come back around to familiar themes. Lyrical solo lines for violin, clarinet, and flute often doubled the vocal line before diverging suddenly. Like Britten, Gordon sometimes seems to make the score work at cross-purposes with the singer, acting as its own aural narrative. The effect was beautiful, but when paired with the clumsy libretto fell just short of coming together as a whole. The harmonic structure varied from tonal to atonal without apparent purpose. Still, conductor Timothy Myers demonstrated impressive musical interpretation—the man knows how to execute a perfectly lingering fermata.

Giant folds of painted canvas gave rippled visual structure to the set, echoing Myrtle’s artistic inclinations. Indeed, the curtain first opens with Myrtle, lustrous in a red silk gown, painting at an easel with the image hidden from the audience. In the closing moments, the painting is finally turned around. I had been hoping for something scandalous or revelatory—anything, really, to give this lackluster opera a boost. But at the close, when von Stade sang “Forget, forget, oh how I dream to forget,” I found myself, for the first time, knowing how she felt.

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