Rocky Mountain High

It takes a stony heart to resist Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, now playing in a new production at the City Opera. The composer himself was said to weep copiously during the final scene as the faithful Baby Doe, freezing to death in Horace Tabor’s long-abandoned Matchless Mine in the mountains of Colorado, sings her “Leadville Liebestod.” Apparently the Wild West setting and tuneful, Broadway-flavored score cannot be exported – this colorful slice of Americana drawn from real life usually gets sniffed at in Europe – but those same qualities have made the opera a repertory staple here. Luckily, the title role found its perfect advocate early on: Beverly Sills, a cuddly bundle of charm in her vocal prime when she starred in the City Opera’s first production in 1958 and made a memorable recording, which has recently been reissued on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Those who still have Sills’s voice in their ears have always had a problem accepting her successors in the role, but Elizabeth Futral may win them over. Although her soprano has more of an edge than Sills’s and she lacks that paradigm’s Marchesi-style of training, Futral is a joy to hear as her silvery tone delicately traces the phrases of Baby’s gorgeous arias (four in Act I alone). Her characterization is also imaginatively developed. The audience as well as Horace Tabor should fall in love with Baby Doe the instant she appears asking directions to the Clarendon Hotel – few operatic heroines are given a more effective entrance than this enchanting creature as she hesitantly wanders into view to the accompaniment of an offstage upright piano playing a seductive turn-of-the-century waltz. Futral seizes the moment and goes on to let us see Baby Doe’s love for Tabor gradually deepen until we are confronted with a devotion equal to Isolde’s for Tristan. An exquisite portrait.

Mark Delavan’s burly baritone and blunt vocal style strike me as more apt for Tabor, the self-made panhandling man who bets on silver and loses, than the Verdi roles he now sings with such bluster. As his discarded wife, Augusta, perhaps the opera’s most complex character, Joyce Castle has her finest hour and very nearly steals the show – as did her predecessor, the late Frances Bible (these performances are dedicated to the memory of that stalwart City Opera institution). I rather miss the lovingly detailed scenic touches of the previous production, but John Coyne’s sets have plenty of atmosphere and cinematic fluidity while constantly reminding us of the Colorado Rockies and the enticing riches they once contained. Director Colin Graham is content to tell a good story with brisk efficiency, and the large cast is right on the money. The Ballad of Baby Doe may not be the Great American Opera, but it is one of the best we have and the City Opera is doing it proud once again.

Two distinguished New York-based violinists turned 80 last year, Isaac Stern with much fanfare and Robert Mann on a quieter note. While Stern seldom plays in public these days, Mann continues to be in tip-top shape – when he left his post four years ago as first violinist with the Juilliard String Quartet, which he formed in 1946, it by no means signaled retirement. This past December, he performed a strenuous all-Bartók program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and not long ago he was at Merkin Concert Hall playing the no less challenging music of Elliott Carter, with the 92-year-old composer on hand to lead the applause.

Even Mann can’t make Carter sound easy, but he does open doors on this musical world and ushers a listener in with the skill, assurance, and poetic flair born from more than 50 years of exploring the terrain himself. He and pianist Christopher Oldfather are surely aware of the visual image behind the 1973-74 Duo for Violin and Piano, once described by Carter to Ned Rorem: “I thought of the keyboard as the inexorable flat side of a mountain, and of the violin as a fearful mountain climber.” That description could just as aptly be applied to this compellingly characterized performance, as Mann’s agile and articulate violin darted over the chiseled profile of Oldfather’s rock-solid piano base. As first violinist with the Juilliard for the world premieres of Carter’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 and having played the other two on many occasions, Mann must have been delighted to get his first crack at Quartet No. 5. This is another of the composer’s compressed, lucid four-way discussions, here shared with Nicholas Mann (Robert’s son), Ulrich Eichenauer, and André Emelianoff. A handful of short recent works filled out the program, including an elegant birthday tribute to Mann, Rhapsodic Musings for solo violin.

From age to beauty. The hot young composer of the moment is Michael Hersch, at 29 busily fielding one prestigious commission after another. The latest was Umbra, a 25-minute score for the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, which recently gave the work its premiere at bam under Robert Spano’s direction. Like many of his contemporaries, Hersch cultivates an expansive, lush neo-romantic style that will have no truck with Carter’s rigorous academicism, let alone yesterday’s minimalist fashions – here, obviously, was the perfect choice to help illustrate the heated Liebestod theme of the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s current season: music that explores love and loss, ecstasy and pain, passion and abandonment.

Umbra has no specific program, but its brooding, nightmarish atmosphere definitely casts a dark shadow. There are seven movements, the first six slow, sparely scored, and pregnant with anticipation before the finale explodes into a furious fugal dash to the abyss. From someone who only decided to study music ten years ago, this is a remarkably assured score, even if the general effect, for all the melodramatic gestures, seems rather bland and featureless. Hersch is scarcely an inhibited composer, but he is so intent on being aggressively accessible that an individual voice seldom registers, a failing with so many of today’s young neo-romantics. From a talent this big one wants to be astounded, not pleasantly surprised.

The Ballad of Baby Doe
A City Opera revival of the Douglas Moore opera, starring soprano Elizabeth Futral.

Rocky Mountain High