The world debut of JFK, the ballyhooed opera commissioned by Fort Worth Opera to open this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival, has earned global attention. The production, set in a hallucinatory, fever-dream world that composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek imagined what president Kennedy’s last night and morning in Fort Worth would have been like, piqued enough interest to entice critics from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to Bass Hall Saturday night. Reportedly, the Los Angeles Times and Toronto Star were there as well.
So what’s the verdict? “Mixed” about sums it up. Generally, they extol the singing, the production values, and the ambition but not always the length -- the piece runs well over two hours with intermission -- the execution, or the character of LBJ bragging about his private parts.
Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times said there are “some sensitively written, beautifully intimate scenes in this opera that will stay with me, especially the first moment we meet Jack and Jackie, as the characters are called.”
But he didn’t like the inclusion of “the fates” -- two characters sung by Telise Trevigne and Sean Pannikar.
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“Mr. Little and Mr. Vavrek also introduce mythological fates, characters who guide the couple and are often fortified by intoning choruses in heavy-handed episodes that turn JFK ponderous. You can understand why the creators fold fatalism into the tale. We find it easier to attribute the death of a charismatic leader to his tempting of the fates than to accept that a deranged nobody managed to assassinate him.”
And he was neither entertained nor amused about perhaps the opera’s most controversial plot point: when LBJ appears dressed like a rhinestone cowboy and extols his manhood.
“The fine, handsome bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch gives his all to this thankless role. Yes, the philandering Johnson boasted of his manhood. And you can imagine that Kennedy had nightmares about his cagey vice president. But this scene, which eventually includes a stripper, leather whips and a half-dozen Texas cheerleaders, just goes for cheap laughs. The music is kinetic and crass, but not dangerous enough to convey a truly menacing dream.”
Heidi Waleson in the Wall Street Journal was the most enthusiastic. “David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s savage, rock-infused, amplified Dog Days (2012) was a shot across the bow of contemporary opera. Their absorbing new work, JFK, which had its world premiere at the Fort Worth Opera Festival on Saturday, issues a different sort of challenge. Scored for traditional opera house forces, it is at once grander and more intimate than Dog Days, as it does away with conventional narrative and instead dramatizes the inexorability of fate along with the inner lives of its characters.”
And she liked the whole LBJ thing. “Mr. Little’s score juxtaposes the insistent, propulsive cacophony of Dog Days with expressive melody. Jack’s worst nightmares—being shouted down by Nikita Khrushchev and the Red Army Chorus (in Russian) on the moon, and a bullying visit (while he’s in the bathtub) from his vice president, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, who sings a swaggering rockabilly anthem and calls him a “pussy—are comedic chaos with appropriate hints of nastiness. These are offset by the sweetness of his courtship duet with Jackie (also on the moon).”
Anne Midgette of the Washington Post heaped praise. “The tremendous expectations for JFK drew critics and opera insiders from around the country to the premiere; and both creators seem to have taken a lot of those expectations upon themselves in their palpable efforts to make their opera Great with a capital G. It’s a credit to both their talents that they manage to pull off some measure of dramatic coherence in this ambitious, uneven, and sometimes appealing work.”
She goes on.
“Parts of this opera are frankly eye-rolling, trafficking in eager, honest clichés: Fates and ‘fragile lives’ and all. Yet overall, the piece represents an honest attempt to make a work of art that can communicate with a broader audience without sacrificing its integrity, drawing on lots of elements of the operatic tradition without merely copycatting other works. (Yes, you can hum along. No, it does not sound like Puccini.) As an evening of theater, it has serious flaws, but its very openness, its outsized Texas scale, its accommodation to the gung-ho community that commissioned it, makes it worth a second look (which it will get at the Opéra de Montreal, a co-commissioner).”
Despite all that, she wasn’t wowed.
She concludes, “Personally, I didn’t like it very much. But you might.”
Closer to home, Scott Cantrell at the Dallas Morning News liked much of what he saw, saying, “There isn’t a bad or weak voice anywhere in the cast, not even in the excellent chorus,” and that “even the roles of a hotel maid and Secret Service agent get stirring singing from soprano Talise Trevigne and tenor Sean Panikkar.”
But... “When new operas don’t live up to potential, it’s usually for lack of adequate editing. This one could use a lot of weeding. Making the maid and Secret Service agent double as ancient Fates, albeit without costume changes, is plausible; imposing a third pair of roles, as witnesses to Lincoln’s assassination, is too ‘profound’ by half. The creepy episode with Rosemary goes on way too long, and the LBJ episode is acutely offensive in perpetuating the worst stereotypes of Texans. Explaining some of this requires footnotes à la T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.”
The Star-Telegram’s Olin Chism says, “The Fort Worth Opera’s much-anticipated JFK is an engrossing, sometimes puzzling musical tragedy that focuses on the final hours of President John F. Kennedy and the sorrows of first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
He liked that “musically, the opera is full of orchestral and vocal sounds that are effective in creating an atmosphere of impending tragedy, though less so in creating memorable melodies.”
He also liked the way it looks. “Director and scenic designer Thaddeus Strassberger and the design team of Mattie Ullrich (costumes) and Chad R. Jung (lighting) provided a striking visual element. A revolving central hotel suite was surrounded by spectacular sights, including a moonscape, the earth from space, an ominous crescent moon and an outline of the Fort Worth skyline. Brilliant colors were the norm.”
Edited to add comments from the Wall Street Journal.