CIPULLO Glory Denied • Tyson Deaton, cond; Michel Mayes (Older Thompson); Caroline Worra (Older Alyce); Sydney Mancasola (Younger Alyce); David Blalock (Younger Thompson); C Ens of Ft. Worth Op O • ALBANY 1433 (78:16 Text and Translation) Live: Fort Worth 5/2013 Read more Here is an operatic concept with the potential to be not merely interesting but more than that, deeply moving and affecting: the story of Col. Jim Thompson, the longest-held POW in American history. He returned to a wife who thought him dead after eight years and took up living with another man, a country that had changed drastically in his absence, and a government that mistakenly claimed another man, a Navy man, to be the longest-held captive. Thompson, then, had serious emotional and personal issues to deal with, not only his denial of glory (though he was awarded a Silver Star) but also a wife who was no longer docile and submissive but a liberated woman, and children who had forgotten their father. “What’s happened to you?” older Thompson asks his wife near the end of the opera. “You’re not the Alyce I left.” “No, I’m not,” she replies, “I had to learn to fight my own battles and be my own woman.” “Well, I don’t like it!” he cries out. “I want the Alyce I left.” “Well, you ain’t gonna get it,” she throws at him. “I’m not about to start asking you for a dollar every time I need a pair of stockings!” These deep emotional and sociological rifts were almost too much for Thompson to deal with. He eventually divorced Alyce, suffered a stroke, and ended up as a disabled retiree living alone in Key West, Florida, where he died in 2002 at the age of 69.
The opera, based on the powerful oral history of Thompson’s ordeals compiled by author Tom Philpott in 2001, was premiered by the Brooklyn College Opera Theater in 2007 and is here presented in a live recording made at the McDavid Studio (sans audience) in May 2013. The libretto, taken in places almost verbatim from Philpott’s book, is a virtual litany of the seismic cultural changes that occurred in the U.S. between 1964 and 1973. Some of them were for the better; some were not; but none of them were reversible. Undoubtedly, the greatest shift, and the one that Thompson could not deal with at all, was the liberation of women in society. To him, this change was as incomprehensible as the gay lib of Stonewall and Roe v. Wade (both mentioned in the libretto), as well as the era when government deception was accepted as truth by many Americans. What makes this story still viable as a dramatic entity, of course, is that these are the very issues that still divide America, and in fact the very issues that have driven the “conservative movement” in the U.S. since the late 1980s. In a sense, then, America as a nation still reflects Jim Thompson’s struggles to come to grips with a society beyond his understanding and control, and this in itself makes for some very powerful theater.
In creating this powerful work as a stage drama, composer Tom Cipullo chose to write stark, strophic music, rhythmically angular and supported by an extremely small orchestra comprised of only nine musicians (violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, horn, harp, piano, and percussion), which lends itself to extreme clarity in both the instrumental contours and in our hearing the voices of the principals, represented in quick alternation by young Thompson and older Thompson, young Alyce and older Alyce. Both sopranos, and tenor Blalock as young Thompson, have splendid voices; baritone Mayes as the older Thompson has an appropriately dark-sounding voice that captures the spirit of the character extremely well, though it is not appreciable purely as an “operatic” instrument. The music’s angularity does not preclude continuity of musical development: it is evident to me that Cipullo is an excellent composer, and that despite the unusual form he has chosen the music develops extremely well, almost symphonically. Yes, there are snippets (very brief ones) that can be termed “melodic,” but for the most part Cipullo has chosen to write in a bitonal or atonal idiom, well suited to the mental and emotional confusion of the protagonists. The only real drawback here, as often happens nowadays, alas, is the singers’ diction. The men (particularly tenor Blalock) seem to be a bit clearer in this respect than the women, but none of the four are really models in this respect. (This may sound off-topic, but I really do wish that modern singers would study the recordings of baritone Peter Dawson and soprano Gwen Catley for directions on how to enunciate with operatically-produced voices; they could learn a lot from them.)
The libretto’s stream-of-consciousness quality, similar to Faulkner, often juxtaposes young and older Thompson, young and older Alyce, or combinations thereof. At one point, both young and older Alyce sing together, their past and present situations run together in alternating lines. This extremely clever device presents the audience with exactly the kind of confusion that must have been going through their minds at the time of reconciliation and beyond. One of the most powerful statements comes from older Thompson: “Everyone has their own sense of right and wrong, but few people stop to think about it. It’s just there.” And, as older Alyce puts it, “He went through Hell, but so did I. I told the children he was dead, because that’s what I believed….How could any human being survive that?”
In certain respects, of course, your decision to side with Alyce or Thompson in their coming to grips with our modern world will decide how you feel about either character and their personal reactions, but you can’t escape the fact that this is a powerful work, brilliantly conceived by Cipullo and excellently performed by these forces. I do, however, hear this work more as a dramatic cantata than an “opera” in the strict sense of the term, a work that could be presented as a theatre piece with the four principals standing in a row onstage, given pin-spot lighting as each sings together or in turn, the way Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex is usually done. This does not, by any means, detract from the excellence of Cipullo’s achievement, and it is to his credit (and to the credit of Philpott’s book) that both Thompson and Alyce come across as sympathetic. You can feel and understand both of them, understand the conflict that divides them, and really feel for them because their issues are real. This is no fictional dialogue, created to force an issue or make a “statement,” but the real, powerful emotional struggles of two flesh-and-blood human beings caught up in a drama neither one of them wanted or created.
This is a terrifically powerful work, superbly written and well presented despite my caveats about diction. Highly recommended.