Nov. 6 Syracuse Opera: Glory Denied

Cast of Syracuse Opera's production of "Glory Denied" (from left: Ashly Neumann, Kevin Newell, Jennifer Goode Cooper and Gregory Gerbrandt (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Cast of Syracuse Opera’s production of “Glory Denied” (from left: Ashly Neumann, Kevin Newell, Jennifer Goode Cooper and Gregory Gerbrandt (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Acting, singing, staging ignite in Syracuse Opera’s ‘Glory Denied’ 

The company mounts a riveting production of Tom Cipullo’s opera about America’s longest-held POW

By David Abrams

From 1964 through his release from North Vietnam in 1973, Colonel Jim Thompson held the unfortunate distinction of being America’s longest-held prisoner of war. Upon release he returned home to a country, and marriage, that was largely unrecognizable from what he had left nine years earlier.

Thompson’s painful odyssey was chronicled by Tom Philpott in his 2001 book Glory Denied, an oral history based upon interviews with the former POW. The book caught the eye of American composer Tom Cipullo, whose opera by the same name has enjoyed a steady stream of success since its fully staged production five years ago by Chelsea Opera.

With the help of a grant, and a partnership with Chittenango-based Clear Path For Veterans, Syracuse Opera presented Glory Denied Friday evening — the opening work of its 2015-16 season. The company’s staging of Cipullo’s opera, which will be repeated Sunday afternoon, is a dramatically compelling, well-sung and effectively staged production of this contemporary masterpiece.

Past and present unfold side by side in the recounting of Thompson’s ordeal. Flashbacks from captivity, including memories of pre-war domestic bliss that kept him sane during the nine-year incarceration, are juxtaposed with bitter post-captivity realities of the present. Among these are his wife’s admission of a lengthy affair during his extended absence. To separate the “then” and “now,” Glory Denied requires a younger and an older version of both Jim and his wife Alyce. Each will recount the story in continuous, narrative dialogue.

Cipullo’s score, which spans an hour and 20 minutes without break, is grueling on the singers in the individual monologues and ensemble numbers. Each of the four singers was up-to-task.

Gregory Gerbrandt, as the older Thompson (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Gregory Gerbrandt, as the older Thompson (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

As the older Thompson, Gregory Gerbrandt sang with a pleasant baritone that maintained its shape and dramatic intensity throughout the jagged, wide-interval passages. Though his voice early on lacked the projection of the other singers, Gerbrandt quickly gained steam and held its own during the weighty ensemble duos, trios and quartets.

Gerbrandt is also a fine actor. He scored big on One Day at a Time, an incoherent monologue delivered in a drunken stupor at the very end of the opera. This number is as poignant as it is pathetic — a reminder perhaps of PTSD syndrome faced today by soldiers returning from the Middle East.

Above all, Gerbrandt succeeded in portraying a character unable to accept change or cope with the inevitable consequences of change.

“I want what I left,” his character laments throughout the second act. His severe case of culture shock culminates in the show-stopping diatribe, Welcome Home — Cipullo’s nostalgic look at a bygone era much the way Don McLean had done in 1971 with the latter’s iconic song, Bye bye, Miss American Pie.

An excerpt from Welcome Home:

“…Triple X movies, feelin’ groovy, central air, no school prayer.
Peace signs, gas lines, see-through blouses, lying spouses.
Turn on, tune in, Drop out, Welcome home.
CBs, color TVs, Gatorade, Roe v. Wade.
Women’s Lib, Civil Rights, Stonewall, strobe lights.
Stain-free rugs, Watergate bugs, Space Age laser, Ali-Frazier, Go-go boots, leisure suits, No Sid Caesar. No-frost freezer.
Inflation, stagflation, confrontation, angry nation.
Pill popping, one-stop shopping, polyester, wife swapping.
Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. Burn out. Welcome home.
No Mickey Mantle or Marilyn Monroe. No Sandy Koufax. No Sandra Dee…”

As the Younger Thompson, Kevin Newell forged a convincing tragic POW and sang with a bright, full-voiced tenor whose delivery reflected the pain and loneliness of his confinement.

Newell, whom Central New Yorkers may remember as the sexually repressed youngster Henrik in the company’s production last season of A Little Night Music, belted out the high notes fearlessly. Walking across the stage in his drab POW outfit, ripped at the knees, Newell cut a sympathetic figure who manages to survive on the strength of his idyllic memory of his young wife Alyce and the couple’s children.

Ashley Neumann crafted a youthful, fresh and carefree character as the young wife Thompson had left behind, pregnant with their fourth child. The role, which calls for a rather wide tessitura (range), demands considerable vocal flexibility to navigate the high notes. Neumann, a coloratura soprano whose past roles have included The Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, handled these with consummate ease.

Neumann played her young Alyce not so much as the young wife, but rather as an idyllic fabrication of her incarcerated husband’s imagination and selective memory. This created a stark contrast to the older Alyce, a three-dimensional human character complete with blemishes and flaws — a role brought soberly into focus by Jennifer Goode Cooper.

Jennifer Goode Cooper as the Older Alyce (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Jennifer Goode Cooper as the Older Alyce (photo: Douglas Lee Wonders)

Cooper’s Alyce is a credible amalgam of exhaustion, bitterness and cynicism. Where her husband’s wounds are largely skin deep, hers are psychological — but no less painful. Cooper’s words resonate deeply when she moans “He went through hell, but so did I.”

The tribulations this woman had to endure while her husband was away could be seen on Cooper’s face and in her manner of stage deportment. The audience sympathizes with her when she importunes her husband, following his return home, to “Hear me out…,” knowing the news will be unbearably painful. We empathize with her predicament when, years earlier, she cries, “The Army has shown me no proof he’s alive… am I supposed to sit in a goddam rocking chair with a prayer book and wait?”

Yes, Alyce is a bitter woman. But it’s not difficult to appreciate the source of that discontent. Her husband, with three children and a fourth on the way, could easily have opted out of combat service. Instead, he chose to accept a dangerous mission. When in Act Two Thompson finally offers his wife forgiveness, a defiant Alyce asks, “What have I done that calls for forgiveness?”

Cooper, who sang the soprano role of Rosalinda in Syracuse Opera’s production last year of Die Fledermaus, sang with a rich and handsome lyric soprano whose colors in the low register (which Cipullo tests repeatedly) suggests that her voice may ultimately morph into that of a mezzo. 

As a drama, Glory Denied asks all the right questions but uncovers no satisfactory answers. Perhaps there are none to be found. The music, however — set in an accessible harmonic framework couched in lively rhythmic patterns — captures the imagination and holds the attention of the listener.

Cipullo’s harmonic language in Glory Denied never strays from a tonal center, though the writing during the more disturbing parts of the story occasionally evokes musical Expressionism in its nightmarish portrayal of fear and angst. At times I was reminded of Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw

Like Verdi’s Otello, Cipullo uses reminiscence motifs to represent and identify characters. Most notably among these is the motif representing the Young Alyce (or at least Thompson’s idyllic vision of her at the time of his captivity) — a dreamy progression of four sonorous chords that move gently up the scale in stepwise motion.

Cipullo’s writing is challenging to more than just the singers: His demands on the chamber-sized ensemble of nine are equally formidable, with busy writing that affords the players little time to rest. The instrumentalists (culled from Symphoria) were first-rate throughout the exhaustive demands of the score, navigating the tricky syncopations and asymmetrical meters and with apparent ease. The fact that Friday marked the first time these instrumentalists had performed this challenging work speaks well of the level of talent in Symphoria.

Conductor Carmine Aufiero, music director of the Chelsea Opera, is well acquainted with this work having conducted it several times. He did a fine job keeping the ensemble numbers together, synching the stage and pit with only an occasional mishap. 

One has to admire the ingenuity of Stage Director Helena Binder, who in her Syracuse Opera debut took every opportunity to maximize the impact of this economical but effective set. Projections against the three standing panels that shifted smoothly into different configurations did wonders to expand the look and feel of the small Carrier Theater stage. The projected images, which ranged from contemporary newspaper articles about the war to scenic trees and foliage, consistently captured the mood of the moment.

If there’s a criticism to be found in Glory Denied, it’s the second act — which tends to sag under the weight of repetitive and superfluous dialogue that continues long after the points have been made and absorbed by the listener. A little trimming would be in order. Opera by a living composer must be viewed as a work in progress, and I expect Cipullo will find a fix.

Too bad Jim and Alyce Thompson, each now deceased, could not have done likewise.

Details Box:
What: Glory Denied, music and words by Tom Cipullo, based on the book by Tom Philpott
Who: Syracuse Opera
Language: Sung in English, with projected titles
Where: Carrier Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, 2015
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8
Length: About 1 hours and 20 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $46.  Call (315) 476-7372 or syracuseopera.org

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