Come As You Aria

The night I saw New Moon, there were far too many glitches--lines garbled, objects dropped, and a lot of inept stage combat. Only Raven and Dean Anthony as Alexander, the groom to rebellious French aristocrat Robert, seemed to get the comic timing right. Richard Bryne (as Robert) may be more suited to grand than comic opera, and though Diane Alexander (Marianne, his love interest in the New World) has a sterling voice, she doesn't seem to get comedy, either. The full company songs are splendid, as are the occasional tableaux (everybody freezing in a perfect picture). But the lasting impression is one of uneven stagecraft.

Fortunately, the flawed acting technique is confined to New Moon. The best acting of the Central City season belongs to the company's signature piece, The Ballad of Baby Doe. Commissioned by the Central City Opera Association in 1953, this show dishes up a sordid story of pride, self-indulgence, power-grabbing and adultery disguised as significant history--and however overblown the sentiments might be in a straight drama, the music makes it all work in the opera.

Powerful mining millionaire Horace Tabor dumps Augusta, his wife of 27 years, for the childlike Baby Doe, a woman who has just jettisoned her own husband because she's attracted to Tabor's wealth and power. President Chester Arthur attends the wedding when Tabor is appointed to the Senate, and all the Washington wives have to be nice to Baby Doe. But back home in Colorado, the wives don't forgive so readily, and Baby and Horace are thrown back on their own resources, socially speaking. Baby, meanwhile, has actually fallen in love with Horace, who then loses all his money staying stubbornly true to silver when everyone else decides to go on the gold standard. He dies a broken man, and Baby is left to live out her life in abject poverty. In real life, she froze to death in a shack next to the last thing she owned, the Matchless Mine, her two daughters having deserted her. That grotesque death is left out of this story, but this being grand opera, everybody gets his and hers eventually.

The company has to build some sympathy for these acquisitive characters, or we wouldn't care what happened to them. And there are several very moving moments in the show. The first comes when Augusta discovers a pair of gloves intended for Baby in her husband's drawer, reads the note, then compares the dainty fingers of the glove to her own hardened hands. Women of her era feared desertion more than death--the world constructed by males ensured she would have no real life at all as a divorcee. Horace makes an equally pitiable sight when he finally loses everything and searches for some vestige of his old dignity in the Denver Opera House that was built with his money. And when Baby sings her last aria, the music soars above the ghastliness of her fate--and of the choices she's made.

Jan Grissom is perfect in the title role--baby-faced, beautiful, and endowed with a lovely, crystalline voice. She is a delightful actress who makes undeniable magic with baritone Brian Steele as Tabor; the sexual tension is persuasive. The most notable acting performance in the production, though, comes from mezzo-soprano Dana Krueger as the tormented, tough old Augusta. Her voice, not as powerful as Grissom's, doesn't always penetrate the orchestra. But she, too, is a magnetic presence, and because Augusta takes some responsibility for her fate, Krueger can project greater nobility than the other characters.

Given the melodramatic nature of the story, great care needs to be--and has been--taken to avoid posturing and pretense in the staging. Anania's marvelous sets create exactly the right atmosphere, and what results is exciting theater, made all the more satisfying by its presence in a genuine nineteenth-century Colorado mountain opera house. Like Rigoletto, Baby Doe is highly accessible, meant for the people, and full of superb sound and furious feeling.

Central City Opera, through August 11 at the Central City Opera House, 200 Eureka Street, Central City, 292-6700.

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