- Reporters Desk
By John Farrell
For more than 400 hundred years, the biggest driving force in opera has been mental illness.
No, not mental illness of the megalomaniac kind that drives producers to spend millions, which they can’t afford on productions that are less than glorious. (That’s a book in itself.) Mental illness of the kind that causes women and men to go crazy with grief, with passion, with regrets.
A Coffin in Egypt, the new opera by gifted composer Ricky Ian Gordon is the latest in that long and honorable tradition. The libretto, by Leonard Foglia, is based on the play of the same name written by playwright Horton Foote. This opera was specifically written for Frederica von Stade.
A Coffin in Egypt is one woman’s very emotional look at her own very violent, very unhappy life. Most of that life was spent in the small town of Egypt, Texas. Myrtle Bledsoe, a 90 year old who has outlived her violent husband, her two daughters, everything but her regrets. With a few speaking roles and the backing of a gospel choir, Myrtle relives her life full of disappointment and more than a little hatred, of blacks, her husband and even her children. She says that she once had a chance to be a star on Broadway, once was seduced by a sheik who wanted her to run away with him. But she always returned to Egypt, where her husband was continually unfaithful to her, finally murdering the father of his 17-year-old mistress with whom he was having an affair.
The murder, we are sure, was real, but the other stories? Perhaps they are true, perhaps not. At 90, who knows? But all Myrtle has is the memories and the knowledge that finally she will join all her family in her own coffin in Egypt.
Flicka, as von Stade is always called, retired three years ago but agreed to come back for this role. At 68 she is still in vibrant, she still has a delightful voice (though the performance on July 23 at the Wallis Center was miced). She sang with passion, lively and cheerfully remembering her days in Paris and Morocco, with anguish and sorrow and a tinge of madness when she recalled her husband and their relationship. The work is in one long hour, with the choir singing original tunes by Gordon, with Flicka always the center of attention.
Gordon is one of the best opera composers around. His tuneful, friendly way with music guarantees the audience is involved and delighted. He has been represented at Long Beach Opera, where his Orpheus and Eurydice was performed in the Belmont Shore Olympic Pool, and there are hints that his opera The Grapes of Wrath will eventually reach Los Angeles.
A Coffin in Egypt, some critics have said, will not survive. It was written for a single voice and after she is done, no one else will take it on. It seems more likely that the role, which is a great one for any mezzo, will be heard again. And Flicka, at 68, is younger than Placido Domingo, who is still going strong.