Review: ‘Baby Doe’ remains relevant through Chautauqua Opera’s remarkable staging

Review by Arthur Kaptainis

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
William Jennings Bryan (David Crawford) delivers a campaign speech to supporters in Chautauqua Opera’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. The second and final performance begins at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Norton Hall.

If Douglas Moore is no longer a name to inspire even a flicker of recognition, then his signature work, The Ballad of Baby Doe, still has a place in the collective consciousness of opera buffs. After all, no less a soprano than Beverly Sills turned the piece into a star vehicle two years after its 1956 premiere, and no less a label than Deutsche Grammophon made a recording — back when making a recording meant something.

Does this tale of boom, bust, love and loss in Colorado have any business in the 21st-century repertory? After some reflection and even a little vacillation, I am inclined to say yes — on the strict condition that performance standards match those that prevailed Friday night at Norton Hall.

The score is a hybrid, mixing toe-tapping choruses that suggest an awareness of Rodgers and Hammerstein with sequences driven by authentically operatic urges. Perhaps the most convincing (and least characteristic) scene is the last, in which the ruined silver baron Horace Tabor returns to Leadville, the town he once all but owned, and hallucinates about the women in his past.

Elsewhere the storytelling is straightforward. Indeed, the libretto by John La Touche is based on the real scandal created in the 1880s by Elizabeth McCourt Tabor, a divorcée who either fell for Tabor, a married man, or seduced him, or a blend of both. Whether Baby Doe (as she is known) should be viewed as a victim or a home-wrecker is not made entirely clear in this treatment, although her idealistic language can leave no doubt of the sincerity of her feelings.

At any rate, a much more vivid figure is Augusta, the upright and hardworking wife Tabor leaves for a younger and more compliant companion. Moore and his librettist could have turned Augusta into a pince-nez caricature. Instead, they produced a three-dimensional portrait of a determined pioneer woman who had earned her position in society and probably had more to do with the success of her roughneck husband than he could ever know. Such is the moral depth of this woman that she later gives consideration to rescuing, financially, the man who abandoned her. It seems to me that the opera might have just as aptly been titled The Aria of Augusta Tabor.

Possibly, this opinion is influenced by the standout performance as Augusta by Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, a mezzo-soprano whose lustrous sound is complemented by a natural ability to hold the stage. Baritone Mark Delavan was in sturdy voice and made a believable figure of Tabor in both in his cigar-smoking prime and in his years of misfortune.

Cree Carrico, an apprentice artist, had both the silvery voice and ingénue looks she needed to play the title character, although her projection was variable. Mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis sounded handsome as Baby Doe’s mother and bass-baritone David Crawford was in hearty voice for a campaign speech by William Jennings Bryan.

Even President Chester Alan Arthur makes a cameo in this opera, in which the trappings of late-19th-century America abound. The conflict between the gold-standard elite of the East and the free-silver sympathies of the West creates a credible undercurrent of tension. Costumes and properties were of the period. The set design of Erhard Rom included sepia-toned images of the real characters and the real frontier setting, a logical touch.

Director Jay Lesenger dealt realistically with the principals and managed the many supporting characters (including Tabor’s cronies and a quartet of Washington dandies) with choreographic humor. The audience got a chuckle when Augusta’s scandalized lady friends lifted teacups to their lips on cue on the final beat of an aggressive march.

Newsboys convey the catastrophe: that McKinley has defeated Bryan and silver is doomed. Tragic consequences are inevitable. Unfortunately, Moore cannot summon a suitable tone of transcendence in the final pages, as Baby Doe asserts rather too conveniently that she and her dying husband will be “ever young.”

The Liebestod this is not.

Nor can it be said that Moore sustains musical interest consistently in the course of a score that feels long. Much of the writing is in what might be called in-between mode, neither fetchingly tuneful nor grippingly expressionistic. The composer sounds too eager to keep things moving with quick waltzes and hoedown syncopations, and seldom recapitulates melodic material in a satisfying way. Even though his idiom is accessible bar by bar, it proves hard to follow over the long haul. I could almost hear Joseph II repeating his famous rebuke of Mozart: Too many notes. In this case with justice.

All of which makes more impressive the achievement of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra members under Steven Osgood. Moore was a colorful orchestrator with a fondness for flute obbligatos and picturesque touches of honky-tonk piano. All this came over very well, and the choruses as prepared by Carol Rausch were rousing.

Above all, the piece was delivered with enough theatrical conviction to overcome the musical shortcomings to which I have devoted perhaps a little too much attention. The ovation (from a two-thirds crowd who chose this show over a bluegrass concert in the Amphitheater) was robust. A period piece with a resonant story at its core, The Ballad of Baby Doe works. I see that Chautauqua revives it every 15 years or so. I look forward to the next opportunity to weigh its merits.

Arthur Kaptainis writes for The Gazette (Montreal) and the National Post.

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