The Setup: Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of A Coffin in Egypt, librettist and director Leonard Foglia's and composer Ricky Ian Gordon's adaptation of the Horton Foote play of the same name. Frederica von Stade stars in this largely one-woman show as the indomitable Myrtle Bledsoe, a woman in her nineties who is reflecting on her misspent life in Egypt, Texas. This gorgeous character study doesn't just translate well from play to libretto; it succeeds on every level and the result stands proudly on its own. The Execution: On paper, the work of playwright Horton Foote might seem like an unlikely transfer to the grand scale of the opera. Even when Foote is working across multiple generations, his plays have a distinct sense of the intimate, of the miniature suddenly magnified for the audience. There is also the matter of his preferred locations, the rustic and heat-baked environs of rural Texas, which are not exactly the usual backdrops of operatic happenings. But this is probably the greatest achievement of Leonard Foglia's libretto, that Myrtle's life not only remains preciously personal, but becomes a wellspring of universal understanding.
The prim, proper, and always ladylike Myrtle has spent much of life in the picturesque town of Egypt, Texas, but the marriage that has brought her here has been anything but beautiful. Her husband, a wealthy plantation owner by the name of Hunter, spends most of his nights with a Maude Jenkins, a mulatto women who is often mentioned but never seen. To escape her humiliation, Myrtle takes her daughters on a seven-year excursion through Europe where she discovers that she is a fun, lively, and beautiful thing. She returns to Egypt to discover that her husband has continued with his philandering ways; Hunter eventually becomes involved with a seventeen-year-old girl, and kills her father when their affair is discovered. He wreaks havoc on his family, and Myrtle by extension.
Myrtle's tempestuous past is heightened by the lovely set design by Riccardo Hernandez. Simple, yet, ornate, the stage is filled with large panels that reveal the images on Myrtle's canvases. They are trees, but not the trees of ordinary landscapes. These are trees that have told her their secrets, as she tells us, and they come in many shapes and colors. The minimal sets work in tandem with Brian Nason's lighting design, which change the hue of the impressionist-like images according to tone of whoever aria Myrtle is singing. The overall concept of design as narrative device works exceedingly well given the limited number of characters used to flesh out the libretto.
Ricky Ian Gordon's music is also quite compelling, and von Stade fills each aria with a sense of knowing and understanding. She inhabits the music so well, there are moments when one feels that they are listening to the confessions of a close friend. And she has fine support as well. The Texas setting, and the story's racial hostility, is underscored by a smartly placed gospel quartet which at times seem to echo Mrytle's sentiments, and at other times taunt her. In this way, the music becomes an outward manifestation of her inner conflict, of her determination to make sense of her ruined life.
The Verdict: A Coffin in Egypt is a first-rate star vehicle for a first-rate stage performer. Frederica von Stade creates a ravishing heroine who is part Scarlett O'Hara, part Aurora Greenway, but always wholly human. Leonard Foglia's arias are not just laments of a life full of missed opportunities, but capsules of powerful shades of regret, shame and longing. Myrtle Bledsoe is one unforgettable character; at the end of her life, it's clear that her existence is one big pile of what-could-haves, but the audience gets to see her victory even if she can't. She has outlived everyone around her, she has survived, and she will see one more sunrise across the prairie. It's anything but a picture perfect finish, but it's one the audience is more than happy to witness.
A Coffin in Egypt plays March 21 at 8 p.m. at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit Houston Grand Opera's website.
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