Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum Theatre, May 28

Every opera lover has a list of seldom-performed works she’d like to see and hear at least once. After 20 years of assiduous operagoing, mine has dwindled to an oddball miscellany: things like Der Freischutz, Rusalka, Prince Igor, Benvenuto Cellini, and The Ballad of Baby Doe, with its haunting closing aria. Chicago Opera Theater does oddball miscellany better than almost anyone else, and its production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, the second and final opera of its risen-from-the-ashes 20th season, bodes well for the future of the company.

Douglas Stuart Moore (1893-1969) mined the same vein of American regionalist folksiness that employed his contemporaries Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland (and, like Copland, worked in New York City, the antithesis of regionalism and folksiness). Their music paralleled the regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, though their style lasted longer; they were still exploring folk melodies long after Benton’s muscular realism had been replaced in popularity by the spatterings of his student Jackson Pollock. In recent years their works have been revived by companies looking for operas that are outside the standard round of 19th-century war-horses and that can still be viewed (if you squint) as contemporary.

Moore wrote three operas that are still occasionally performed: The Devil and Daniel Webster (1939), The Ballad of Baby Doe (1956), and Carry Nation (1966). The last two were based on historic events and premiered in the areas where those events took place: Central City, Colorado, and Lawrence, Kansas, respectively. History and opera seldom mix, at least from the historian’s point of view; Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda barely resemble the real persons and events. But Moore and his librettist, John Latouche, stayed admirably close to the facts in Baby Doe, even when those facts–those surrounding bimetallism and free silver, for example–don’t lend themselves to the stage. (In a bimetallic monetary system gold and silver are used together as a standard, with silver’s official value pegged at a fraction of that of gold. The free silver movement of the late 19th century, the cause d’etre of presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and the key to the fortunes of the opera’s hero, Horace Tabor, would have permitted unlimited minting of silver coinage, which would have given mining interests huge profits–and promoted unlimited inflation. Program notes exploring this history would have been useful in understanding the action of the opera.)

The first act deals with the romance between Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, a grass widow from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Tabor, a former miner and self-made silver magnate-cum-politician in the boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, in 1880. Among his possessions are the local saloon, hotel, and opera house and a treasure trove called the Matchless Mine; he quickly sets out to acquire the charming Baby as well. This arouses the ire of his wife, the formidable Augusta, and her circle, but that doesn’t stop Tabor from divorcing the spouse of his rough-and-tumble years and taking a trophy wife. The silver king marries his gold digger at a wedding attended by Chester A. Arthur, the president of the United States.

The silver market and Tabor’s business dealings grow tarnished in the second act, but Baby’s character emerges as sterling–“the real thing,” her husband tells her just before he dies. She stands by Tabor even in the bad times and never breaks her promise to hang on to the Matchless Mine. (The real Baby Doe lived long after Tabor, who died in 1899; she was found frozen to death on the floor of her cabin at the minehead in 1935.)

It’s a complex story, and telling it makes for a long evening and requires a cast of dozens. Unfortunately, the hours do not fly by unnoticed. Moore depends heavily on the waltz form, which seems appropriate, but he could have used a bit more lilt in his music–or a good editor. Those parts of the libretto that were understandable in the Chicago Opera Theater production (diction was almost uniformly mediocre) were often laden with cliches. Baby Doe resembles a desert studded with oases; the green bits are lovely, but one wishes for a little less sand. (I should point out that I’ve appeared in several COT productions, though I’ve never auditioned for the new administration.)

Most of the beautiful and vocally interesting sections of this opera belong to its title character, and soprano Carol Gale carried them off with charm and verve, in a clear, high voice. Her diction was the best among those singing the major roles, the more remarkable given the notorious difficulty of projecting words intelligibly above the staff, and her rendition of the aria that closes the opera was touching. In appearance Chris Owens was well cast as Tabor, but his voice was less satisfactory. His baritone is large, warm, and manly, but loses pitch when he tries to sing too loudly. Many of his words were lost, and he was often stiff in his acting. Whether at director Carl J. Ratner’s behest or on his own initiative, he unfailingly and annoyingly held his arms rigidly at his sides and stared up at the spotlights when he should have been looking at Baby.

Veteran mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn brought great presence and stagecraft to her role as the wronged wife, Augusta, making us feel the pain of her situation, while Karen Brunssen was deliciously vulgar as Baby’s mother. There are 35 other characters, and the standard was almost uniformly high. Many of these comprimario roles were taken by members of the chorus, who also acquitted themselves well as an ensemble, particularly in the political rally scene of the second act.

Mary Griswold’s sets coped nobly with the physical limitations of the space and the financial limitations of the company, but more attention could have been paid to the makeup and costumes, several of which were ill-fitting or unflattering. Under the direction of Ted Taylor, the orchestra played well, if a tad too loudly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.