Beverly Sills once said the most challenging part of playing Baby Doe was making her likable from the start. The same might be said of the other main characters in Moore’s opera, all of whom are profoundly flawed and selfish. At the opener of this year’s Opera in the Ozarks production an excellent cast reveals all the good in what could otherwise be a drama about a reprehensible trio. They portray love in all its complicated, tormented forms. They made this “The Ballad of Baby Doe” about the honest feelings that can inform dishonorable behaviors.
This is a difficult opera for a young cast. Music aside, the drama hinges on the love affair of a young Baby Doe with a substantially older Horace Tabor and the unrequited love of his spurned, cold wife. Especially during Act one, the age differential was not convincingly portrayed. And yet, this may have been this production’s strength. The audience could look over the imbalances and asymmetries in the several relationships portrayed and get to the pith of the matter: the sometimes circuitous ways in which love is realized and recognized.
A Multi-faceted Performance That Could Yet Develop Further
Coburn Jones’ Horace Tabor was a careful study of masculine sensitivity. Jones has an attractive, clear-toned voice with a sfumato quality in the middle and a good whoop in the upper register. He excelled in his scenes with Baby Doe where he conveyed true wonder and sweetness without being saccharine. He might be a “weakling” as his wife calls him, but there is a sense that he did everything open-heartedly.
And yet, Horace was a man whose rags to riches story involved hard labor and whose sex life was filled with prostitutes, so there must be some hard edges here and there. Jones was less effective at suggesting this, in part because of occasional thinness in his lower register. That said, he did convey a sense of maturation and aging in Act two, especially in a viciously powerful confrontation with his cronies in which he assumed a state of near-craze as Horace clung to futile hopes of continued wealth in a business (silver mining) that would lead to his destruction. In this scene his voice was excitingly resonant above the staff: he even knocked off a very secure high D on an “I” vowel, which is no mean feat.
Jones is also to be commended for handling two liabilities beyond his control. He dealt believably with (what is to my mind) a ridiculous final scene filled with flash forwards and flashbacks. He also managed a costume mishap (a dangling mustache) with great professionalism and no real break in concentration.
As Tabor’s wife, Augusta, Alyce Daubenspeck was on fire. In the past, the role has been played with an emphasis on her dour and imperious personality. There is sometimes a temptation to emphasize the darker, ragged edges of the music to guttural effects. Daubenspeck, on the other hand, emphasized strength and nobility. Augusta is not a shrew, but a woman who knew her worth, understood her husband’s limitations, and did everything to ensure that his past double crossing and fast life did not intrude on their mutual success. Daubenspeck’s voice is fully formed from top to bottom and her tone is pristine. Her high notes filled the pavilion and had the extraordinary quality of being both controlled and on the edge of wildness.
She also proved to be an extraordinary actress. During the scene in which Augusta’s friends tell her that her husband is thinking about ending their already estranged marriage, Daubenspeck conveyed a blend of fear and disappointment so heartbreaking that I felt myself gasp. Her face and her trembling treatment of the word “divorce” was unspeakably beautiful.
Still, at times her phrasing could be a little angular and I wish she would have taken a little more freedoms to play with the text. There is a deliciously evil moment where she confronts Baby Doe about her relationship with Tabor in which she tells her there “have been others.” Daubenspeck breezed past this without paying it the requisite attention. This missed opportunity was symptomatic of a stage relationship that never quite caught fire. The confrontation duet between Doe and Augusta has the potential to match any of the great confrontation duets in the standard repertoire — I think for example of the Mamma/Santuzza duet in “Cavalleria Rusticana”– but here things simply fell flat.
Julia Massicotte played a lovely Baby Doe. In the soprano repertory the role is not for the faint of heart with six arias and an important presence from the very beginning to the very end. Moreover, the music is taxing all the way through, replete with Straussian vocal arches and leaps and sustained legatos. Massicotte seemed a bit tentative at first and just a tad fatigued at the very end, but in-between there was a lot of excruciatingly beautiful singing. The top (and to be fair Moore asks for a lot) was occasionally a bit shrill, but everywhere else the voice displayed real warmth and a tremulous sweetness that made the night a thorough success. She convincingly showed that Baby Doe could be both naive and very aware of what she was getting into by taking another woman’s husband. Massicotte’s face displayed constant inner turmoil and her body language communicated a turn inward even in the most public situations. She tried hard to shield herself from the elements.
To my ears, Doe’s letter scene is the opera’s key moment, its revelation. In it she reads a note she has written to her mother about her love life in a way that requires both restraint and soaring lyricism. Anyone performing it has to deal with the operatic ghosts of people like Beverly Sills or Renée Fleming who have sung it with such ravishing appeal. Massicotte acquitted herself marvelously and made me forget those formidable voices in my head.
A Group Effort
Thomas Cockrell led the Opera in the Ozarks Orchestra with a powerful hand. The music moved with equal parts exciting angularity and high emotion. The orchestra captured the bulging romanticism of the music and its simple folksiness too. The players were in their game and seemed at ease with the Euro-American idiom of the score.
The chorus also stood out. At the start they really set the tone during a raucous celebratory scene with Tabor which is cut short by Augusta. Smaller ensemble scenes also proved the depth of talented performers singing in the Ozarks this year. “Tabor’s cronies (Vincent Grover, Mark Hockenberry, Gregory Sliskovich, and David Young)” and “Augusta’s friends (Emily Helenbrook, Joylyn Ruching, Dajeong Song, and Alexa Zeremenko)” were theatrically and musically engaged, making for some of the most intense moments of the night as they shared the stage with the principals.
Opera and History
“The Ballad of Baby Doe” is based on the true story of a man who made it big in silver mining and Colorado politics only to lose it all (except the idea of his “Baby”). The music, though occasionally gesturing at modernist tendencies, is generally a conservative and thoughtful tip of the hat to traditional American music (with references to “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” etc.).
This production emphasized old time Americana. The pavilion with its exposed beams and country charm was the perfect setting for this work. The sets were simple and centered on a raised wooden platform, several movable elements, and a screen with images evoking old-time Colorado and even the real historical figures behind the opera at several points.
This focus on American-ness is important. The context for Horace’s rise and fall is only tangentially related to his love-life. The diminished value of silver, a changing global economy, a shifting national political scene, and his pride were all to blame. Horace is driven to despair and desperately clings to the demagoguery of William Jennings Bryan, who eventually fails in his bid for president. In the end, this opera is fundamentally about seismic changes in American society. As Augusta says in a moment forcefully and prophetically sung by Daubenspeck: “…the age is changing, a dark time lies ahead. New powers are rising and a tiger moves in the heart of man.”
This production treated all the “political” scenes replete with president cameos, party meetings, and talk of things like foreign tariffs with great clarity and seriousness. All involved evoked an American past worth thinking about given our present situation. Whoever thinks that opera is “mere” entertainment, or worse, out of touch should seek out thoughtful productions of great American works like this one to be proven wrong.