The Ballad of Baby Doe

New York City Opera
Thursday, April 19, 2001
by Douglas Moore and John Latouche

Baby Doe Tabor was found frozen to death in March 1935, thirty-six years after her husband, Horace Tabor, had died.  Twenty-one years later, in 1956, the opera was first presented in Central City, Colorado.  Two years later it served as the showpiece in the first season of contemporary opera presented by the New York City Opera.  Walter Cassel, who had created the role of Horace, and Frances Bible, from the second cast of the world premiere production, sang Horace and Augusta, and Beverly Sills created the role of Baby in the New York premiere during the Spring season of 1958.  It was very strange for me to attend an opera about a woman who died the year before I was born and who was celebrated as an operatic heroine when I was 20 years of age.  If Horace Tabor was a stubborn and not a very clever businessman, the larger-than-life love he and Baby shared was certainly enough to inspire Messrs. Moore and Latouche to write an opera on this piece of Americana that was their life together.

This is, perhaps, the most tuneful American opera on an American subject written thus far.  Since that statement comes only from my experience, I’ll expect those of you who know better to correct it via E-mail.  I had heard and very much enjoyed excerpts, such as Baby’s "Willow Song" and "Letter to Mama", sung at recitals.  Those selections made me curious, especially since I tend to avoid all but a very few contemporary operas.  So my first experience with the entire opera was at the final dress rehearsal of this production, a few weeks ago, to which a friend generously invited me.  After that rehearsal, I was very eager to write about my impressions of the work and the performance.  But I could not, because one does not review a dress rehearsal.  As it worked out, I’m glad I did not, because last evening’s performance was far superior to the dress rehearsal which merely hinted at how well the singers would do.

Very few singers in the world can recreate the warmth and Gemütlichkeit of Beverly Sills onstage.  In the role of Baby Doe, Elizabeth Futral comes very close, all the while regaling us with her own, personalized characterization.  She is both a very fine soprano and an excellent actress.  When, in the Act II Governor’s Ball scene, she describes the depth of the love she and Horace share, one cannot help but suffer a pang of jealousy, all the while knowing that her love for and trust in Tabor will cause her to suffer a great deal.  What’s more, the sounds that come out of this woman’s mouth are glorious.  I was fortunate enough to hear her very individualized interpretation of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera a few seasons ago and was left breathless.

Mark Delavan is quickly proving himself to be a major asset to both NYCO and the Met.  His Macbeth at NYCO was highly praised and most effective, as were his Rigoletto and Scarpia.  And his Amonasro in this season’s Aïda at the Met was very well received.  His interpretation of Tabor is a gem.  His rich baritone combined with the acuity of his acting skill allow him to portray twenty years in this man’s life in such a fashion as to make us believe every minute of his performance.

Never have I heard and observed such a powerful performance from Joyce Castle as Augusta Tabor.  This a singer about whom I have had mixed feelings throughout her career, both at the Met and at NYCO.  Her Augusta transformed those feelings into admiration and respect.  What a powerful singing actress!

But what about the music?  To me it is a mixed bag.  I have not heard any other operas by Douglas Moore.  But I cannot help but feel that this work is closer to American musical drama than European grand opera.  That’s really not so bad, especially since he has set a piece of Americana to music.  To me, Baby’s arias -- the "Willow Song", the "Letter to Mama", the "Silver Moon" aria, and what is commonly called the Leadville Liebestod -- all feature memorable melodies and great feelings, as do several of Horace’s arias and those of Augusta.  I could, however, do without the William Jennings Bryan rally outside the Matchless Mine.  If what Bryan was singing was based on the "Cross of Gold" speech, to me it sounded like the worst political clichés imaginable.  If the scene was written to provide more local color, it was totally unnecessary.  And I do not think that John Marcus Bindel, whom I praised so highly for his work in Rigoletto, created a distinctive orator.  I cannot imagine that he could have done something special in this thankless role that seems to have been tacked on for local color or historical character value.

The production was attractive and highly serviceable, with scenery coming in and going off on moving sections of the stage. The costumes were most attractive.

-- Howard in Griswold Hall   

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Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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