|Douglas Moore:||The Ballad of Baby Doe|
Horace Tabor: James Rensink, baritone
Augusta Tabor: Kay Schoenfeld Belich, mezzo-soprano
Baby Doe: Lisa Jablow, soprano
Karlos Moser, conductor
With but a few reservations, the University Opera and University Theater's production of Douglas Moore's quintessentially American opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, which I attended Sunday afternoon at the Union Theater, was a smash hit. The libretto is based on the true story of the 1880s Colorado silver kingpin Horace Tabor, his first wife Augusta, and his love affair with and subsequent marriage to Elizabeth "Baby" Doe, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The romantic plot is intertwined with the collapse of Tabor's financial empire, also historical, as the U.S. goes off silver in favor of gold as the monetary standard, as well as the end of then Senator Tabor's political fortunes with the election of McKinley and defeat of William Jennings Bryan, who had backed free silver. After Tabor's death, which ends the opera, the historical Baby Doe spent the rest of her life (36 years) as a recluse, protecting her claim by living in a cabin at the now worthless Matchless Mine, where she was found frozen to death in 1935.
Christine Seitz's stage direction made excellent dramatic sense, the actors flowing smoothly through a wide range of emotions in a physically complex setting. The costumes, designed for the Seattle Opera, were flawlessly of the period, though late 19th century styles were often heavy and drab. As a stage work, the costumes and indeed every aspect of the action were shown to capital advantage in Joe Varga's technically complicated but brilliantly functional period settings. Together with exceptionally detailed lighting by Sarah Clausen, the production was a visual spectacular.
Moore's music often charts a middle course between what we see today as show tunes and fine art singing. This offers a big advantage in a partly student production like this, since there are far too many parts to cast them all with highly trained voices. Among the principals, baritone James Rensink as Horace Tabor was vocally competent but less wide-ranging than the role allowed, and he was fairly stiff as an actor. Nevertheless he conveyed the grandiose and tragic aspects of the character very nicely. As Baby Doe, soprano Lisa Jablow was an excellent actor, but her voice, though rich and sustained in the lower and middle range, is thin and reedy at the top, which lent a somewhat strained aspect to much of her singing. All the same, she was charmingly naive at the beginning of the action and movingly devoted at its end. The absolute brightest star of the performance was mezzo-soprano Kay Schoenfeld Belich, who as Augusta Tabor displayed a completely commanding presence as an actor, her every motion and vocal nuance casting a new light on the temotions involved, and who as a singer -- alone among the cast -- rendered every word intelligible. Her great aria "Augusta, Augusta, how can you turn away" was simply masterful, as she recounts the pain and misgivings of the sincere moral dilemmas she has faced during Horace's rise and imminent fall.
The main problem of the production was the pit orchestra, directed by Karlos Moser. There were many, many lapses of ensemble, wild grabbings at the notes, and frequent drowning of the stage music by loud playing. It is indeed a very tricky score, but it sounded woefully under-rehearsed, even though this was the second of four performances. The opera will be given again at 8:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27. It's not to be missed.
Isthmus, April, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson