Review: POW's story brings home the drama

Posted Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Glory Denied

2 p.m. Saturday, and May 4 and 11; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and May 7 and 8.

McDavid Studio, Fort Worth

$87

For tickets and more information about the Fort Worth Opera Festival, visit www.fwopera.org.

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You could hardly find a more stark contrast than that between the first two entries in the Fort Worth Opera's 2013 festival.

La Bohème, which opened Saturday night at Bass Hall, is a work of lush music and tender emotions. Glory Denied, which opened Sunday afternoon at McDavid Studio, is a powerful drama of great intensity in both music and acting. They are as different as 2013 is from 1896.

In Glory Denied, composer and librettist Tom Cipullo tells the story of Lt. Col. Jim Thompson, who was the longest-held prisoner of war in American history. He endured almost nine years of torture and deprivation in North Vietnam, then faced psychological pain and the breakup of his marriage while trying to adjust upon his return.

In telling the story, Cipullo uses only four characters -- or more precisely, alternate versions of two characters: Thompson and his wife, Alyce. Singer/actors Michael Mayes and Caroline Worra are the older Jim and Alyce; David Blalock and Sydney Mancasola portray them earlier in the story.

As a drama, Glory Denied scores on many points. For one thing, all four of the performers are top-notch actors, generating tension that is almost painful at times.

The music, both vocal and instrumental (a small orchestra is directed by Tyson Deaton), is another tension-generator. There is not much lyricism here, but the atmosphere is compelling.

One thing that brings a strong sense of isolation to the piece is that Cipullo, for much of the opera, gives his characters soliloquies rather than duets, trios or quartets. Even when all characters are singing at once, they are reflecting within themselves rather than interacting with each other. Only in a few instances, and mostly beyond the halfway point, do they confront each other -- then they are quickly alone again.

McDavid Studio, which is across Calhoun Street from Bass Hall, is a much smaller space. For Glory Denied, the audience is seated on temporary risers and chairs in a semicircle around the stage (the orchestra closes the circle). The configuration makes for great intimacy in the performance, as well as high decibels in one scene with violently slammed trunk lids.

The clever set design by Richard Kagey and subtle touches by director Dean Anthony emphasize the sense of isolation; the characters are seated well apart from each other, with one central table and a few appropriate props, including a vintage tape recorder on which characters record their testimony and a calendar from which Alyce tears sheets to mark the dreary passage of time.

There was one significant flaw in Sunday afternoon's performance. The libretto is in English, of course, but there was no text projection and the words were often not understandable, especially in some of the most intense moments. As pitch rose and dynamics increased, comprehension declined. Ensemble passages made the problem worse. Actually, it wasn't a fatal problem; the context combined with grasping some of the text made the course of the story clear. But greater clarity would have been nice.

Glory Denied will continue at McDavid Studio through May 11. The opera lasts about an hour and a quarter without intermission. A "debriefing" session of about 30 minutes follows each performance, at which audience members may ask questions of the cast and other principals.

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