The story of Jim Thompson, the Vietnam War soldier whose nine-year captivity made him the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, perhaps in retrospect seemed tailor-made for opera. New York City’s Chelsea Opera has now mounted Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied for the second time. It’s a fine work that deserves further exposure.
As Jim’s ordeal dragged on, his wife Alyce never got confirmation from the Army as to whether he was alive or dead. Having given birth to their fourth child the day after Jim’s plane crashed, Alyce eventually took up with another man, who acted as a father to the children. When Jim finally came home he and Alyce made an unsuccessful attempt to pick up where they’d left off. After wrestling with alcoholism, depression, a heart attack, and a stroke, Jim died in 2002 at age 69. Alyce outlived him by six years.
Based on longtime military columnist Tom Philpott’s oral biography of Thompson, Glory Denied is a compact work of fiery emotionality and compositional integrity. Chelsea Opera first staged the opera five years ago. I can’t say what they may have learned from that experience, but several factors have coalesced into making their 2015 revival of this troubled story a painful triumph.
First: Cipullo’s musical vocabulary forms a happy marriage with his conceptual and structural ideas. Non-narrative structure, modernistic rhythms, and angular melodies characterize the music in the first act, relating Jim’s time in prison as recollected by his older self. The horrors of his experience and the parallel “action” between wartime and aftermath are reflected in the feeling of controlled chaos created by unpredictable rhythms and the libretto’s interlocking passages of monologue, dialogue, and imagined communication between characters separated by space and time.
It’s often hard to make out the words – the Chelsea Opera is a small-scale operation, in operatic terms, and supertitles aren’t on the menu. But the score’s intensity and the singers’ powerful musicality drove home what’s going on.
A series of arias make up much of the second act, deepening the characterizations and giving the singers more opportunity to shine individually. The strength of the performers – the singers as well as the 10-piece chamber orchestra conducted by Carmine Aufiero – was the second key element of this powerful production.
Steely-voiced tenor Brandon Snook was young Jim, dressed in rags, bruised and beaten and kept in a cramped cage, yet never surrendering his sanity or giving in to his captors’ harsh interrogations and efforts to undermine his dignity. Baritone Peter Kendall Clark was the older Jim. In the first act he’s a rather forlorn character, in the second a tower of tragic disappointment – the focus of a sad personal story, and at the same time an icon of war’s terrible human cost.
Two singers portray Alyce as well. Kate Oberjat and Martha Guth’s characters, denoted “Younger Alyce” and “Older Alyce” respectively, more precisely represent the Alyce of Jim’s memory and imagination during his incarceration – when he relies on faith in God, country and “the love of a good woman” to sustain him – and the real Alyce, who has “been through hell” just like Jim. Oberjat’s bright soprano lit up the first act, and Guth’s more tempered mezzo achieved remarkable emotional depth in the second.
Fine acting skills complemented all four singers’ wonderful voices, brought out by the minimalist but effective stage direction by Lynne Hayden-Findlay, and especially by a score brilliantly crafted to embody the emotion in the libretto (both are by Cipullo).
The disciplined musicianship of the 10-piece orchestra was impressive too. Having only one player per instrument means every single musician is exposed throughout, and I couldn’t detect any weaknesses. Cipullo makes evocative use of the trumpet in a taps-like military theme, as well as the French horn, percussion, piano, harp, and strings and winds. It’s a challenging score to play, certainly to conduct. The singers were formidably confident in their entrances and intonation. The whole performance was of a piece.
Forceful, wrenching, and thought-provoking, Glory Denied with a number of productions under its belt still deserves further exposure in our age of constant war, with the lessons of Vietnam yet to be learned. It should be considered one of the major operas of the 21st century so far.Powered by Sidelines