Three years ago at Houston Grand Opera the revered mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade made her stage farewell in Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking. But operatic farewells come with loopholes, and following ample precedent she has returned in a starring role. It is hardly one for which von Stade, 68, is too old, since she portrays 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe in the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt.
Based on a 1980 play by Horton Foote, the absorbing new opera is a reminiscence of a life by the person who lived it. Myrtle has much to regret. A long marriage to a serial philanderer heads the list, but prominent too are lost opportunities – an Algerian sheik once loved her and an impresario in New York promised a stage career. Instead, she spent her life in Egypt, Texas (the opera’s title comes from the Book of Genesis).
Leonard Foglia’s arresting libretto deals with the final chapter of Myrtle’s struggle against bitterness. Key events are etched in her mind, but – as a 90-year-old might – she randomly flits from one to another. Yet each return allows Foglia to inject new details.
Gordon’s music, written in a congenial post-Copland tonal idiom, takes advantage of the recurrences as well. The prevailing musical mood is gentle and reflective. Even when Myrtle reacts violently to news that her husband seduced a 17-year-old, the music lacks much bite. Instead, musical variety is supplied by half a dozen tuneful gospel hymns (composed by Gordon) suggestive of racial interaction in the small town.
A Coffin in Egypt is essentially an 80-minute monodrama: there are several speaking roles, including Myrtle’s husband (David Matranga), but von Stade is the only singer. Her voice is heavily amplified – though it could hardly have been otherwise – and, if it lacks beauty, it still functions consistently. Gordon writes for it so that climactic phrases can be securely delivered. Yet the voice itself was always secondary in von Stade’s performances, and her communicativeness remains unimpaired. It’s hard to imagine the life A Coffin in Egypt might have post-von Stade.
A nine-person instrumental ensemble is smoothly conducted by Timothy Myers. Foglia directs sensitively, and Riccardo Hernández’s set represents an autumnal vision of the floral life Myrtle loves in Egypt. But the main visual image is of von Stade dressed in an elegant, bright red dress.