Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Berkeley Opera Performance of The Ballad of Baby Doe

Review of the July 15, 2009 performance published July 17 in papers of the Bay Area News Group, under the headlines,"Inventive 'Baby Doe' redefines riches at the Berkeley Opera"and "Dire necessity gives birth to an inventive 'Baby Doe' at Berkeley Opera."

By Cheryl North

Hard times, whether economic, social, or political, can often serve as stimulus to human creativity — “necessity is the mother of invention” and that sort of thing. Berkeley Opera’s current production, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, set to a libretto by John Latouche, offers a vivid case in point.

Composer Moore, known for his tonally melodic and engagingly rhythmic writing in what has been labeled “typical American folk style,” based his opera on a true story that took place in rip-roaring mid-19th century Colorado during the heyday of silver mining. It’s a rags-to-riches-to-ruin tale of Vermont-born Horace Tabor, who, in midlife, divorces his cold-fish wife Augusta after falling deeply in love with a warm, beautiful, but decades-younger woman, a divorcee named Elizabeth “Baby” Doe.

Berkeley Opera’s big problem, according to it artistic director Jonathan Khuner, is the depressed economy. “Our reality-mandated 40 percent cut in the budget has required that the opera take place on a spare stage with just one table and five chairs,” he says. It also forced Khuner to assume the duties of stage director in addition to conducting the show.

But, no need to worry. What Berkeley Opera may lack in money, it more than made up for with a heaping helping of ingenuity.

The most impressive, jaw-dropping examples of ingenuity were the breath-taking scenic projections created by Jeremy Knight, abetted by Alexander Kort’s lighting wizardry. I marveled at the Knight-Kort set-up: one huge rectangular screen forming the wall at the left side of the stage; four smaller rectangles aligned to suggest a receding perspective of windows veering off on the back of the stage. A large oval-shaped screen was set up on the right front of the stage to alternately accommodate a series of interiors, such as a saloon wall with a “naughty” Victorian painting of Leda and the Swan hanging above the projected rack of bar bottles; a prim parlor wall hung with stripped wallpaper and family portraits; a festively decorated room in Washington, D.C.’s Willard Hotel; or a forest of languid-looking willow trees lit by moonlight.

Who really needs a stage full of lumbering sets and heavy, sometimes awkwardly painted backdrops, when you can have such things as a realistic illusion of boom-town Denver backed by its magnificent ring of sky-high mountains via the ingenious use of artfully lighted scenic projections? High tech to the rescue!

But beyond the opera’s romantic love story aspect, the tale deals with the boom to bust former times when the idealistic, thoroughly democratic-minded Midwestern candidate William Jennings Bryan ran unsuccessfully for the presidency against William McKinley, who had the backing of powerful East Coast banks and financial institutions.

McKinley’s win, a tragedy for the silver rich Tabors, enabled the country’s transfer from a dual silver and gold standard for the American dollar to gold alone. Overnight, the Tabors lost their fortune as well as the friends and status it had attracted.

The role of Horace Tabor, was sung with appropriate gusto by rakishly handsome baritone, Torlef Borsting, who moved convincingly from rowdy full-voice banter at the saloon with his pals to sotto voce crooning to Baby Doe. His love song to her, “Warm as the Autumn Night” was especially beautiful.

Petite, but voluptuous soprano Jillian Khuner, a consummate singing actress, created an endearing Baby Doe. Her ultra high notes, sung pitch-pure at pianissimo levels during her “Willow Song,” seemed capable of melting an iceberg or quenching a fire. While her high range soared, her midrange initially suffered from excessive vibrato.

Tall, reed-slim mezzo-soprano Lisa Houston, in her severely cut black gowns, was a convincing Augusta, as her character teetered on the edge of forgiveness, before finally, angrily, falling into an abyss of bitter vengeance.

In addition to a small, skilled chorus and orchestra, there were also two outstanding quartets of singers: Alexander Taite, Kenny Louis, Michael Beetham and Wayne Wong performing with exceptional dramatic and musical polish as Tabor’s long-time cronies, and a finely blended group of ladies — Elizabeth Wells, Angela Hayes, Elizabeth Gentner, and Cary Ann Rosko — who seemed to be having great fun acting out the righteous indignation of Augusta’s prim lady friends.

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