Glory Denied with words and music by Tom Cipullo based on the book by Tom Philpott is a thoroughly engaging 90-minute chamber opera that has been aired starting in workshop format since 2004 in New York City Opera’s VOX series. The Dresser saw, or should she say experienced, this work January 17 at Washington, DC’s Keegan Theatre in a new production with only four performances by UrbanArias under the able baton of Robert Wood and direction by Kristine McIntyre.
The Dresser says experienced because the emotional load is heavy. It’s a story about a soldier who spends nine years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while his wife, lacking any other information, believes he is dead and moves on. However, the opera is also stressful because it goes back and forth quickly between past and present, is presented predominately in ensemble singing with only a few arias which ratchets up the intensity, and because the UrbanArias has employed exceptionally good singers whose voices are sometimes bigger than what the Keegan Theatre can handle, adding a vibration to the auditory overload.
The way Cipullo manages the rapid transitions from past to present is by using a cast of four where the soldier and his wife are represented by younger and older characters. The younger Thompson sung by tenor John Riesen is seen throughout the opera in bare feet and disheveled battle fatigues. The younger Alyce (Thompson) sung by soprano Cree Carrico is costumed in a pink dress with a hairbow and is very pregnant with their fourth child. She continuously scurries around the stage in her heels without ever giving birth and seems to represent the ultimate teen-aged girly girl. The older Thompson sung by baritone Timothy Mix is at first is seen in formal military uniform and later his formalism is toned down by the removal of his jacket and substitution of a sweater. Because Mix is much taller and broader than Riesen, it was a little hard to see Mix as the older soldier until it dawned on the Dresser that the anchoring character was the older Thompson and the younger versions of himself and his wife were only how the current day Thompson pictured himself and his wife. Likewise the older Alyce sung by mezzo-soprano Caroline Worra who is dressed in pants and sweater is a much bigger woman than Carrico.
Exceptional moments in the opera were Riesen singing the lyrically heartbreaking Psalm 23 from his inhumanly cramped cell, Mix performing a tour-de-force survey of what had changed in America since he was last home, and Worra pouring forth with “He went through Hell, but so did I.” Several times Carrico sings the opening lines of a letter to her husband that begins “My darling.” The first notes of the music for these letters are languid and yearning and Carrico delivers these openings in a moving way that reminds the Dresser of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.
Scenically, the words of Alyce’s letters are often projected in lights on the stage floor. The lighting and projection design of Kathy Maxwell is exceptionally creative. She uses two opposing walls on either side of the stage to project scenes from Vietnam as well as home-based family snapshots and film footage.
In Joe Zealburg’s poem “Apocalyptic Drone,” the Dresser is reminded of what the older Thompson has come face to face with when he returns to civilian life and it clearly seems apocalyptic to him. Here is Thompson’s tirade:
I missed so much I can’t catch up, I can’t catch on.
Ev’ry single fact I knew or thought I knew, is diff’rent now.
Ev’ry thing has changed somehow.
John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, astronauts, moon shots.
Heiress robber Patty Hearst, soldiers coming home get cursed.
Fad diets, Chicago riots, Watts, Newark, Brownsville, Bed-Stuy, My Lai,
Kids get high, Men can cry, Wives can lie.
Terrorists at the Munich Games,
Athletes now with Muslim names.
Credit cards, fast food, Music’s vulgar, movies lewd.
a nation become crude and callous,
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alyce!
Turn on. Tune in. Freak out! Welcome home!
Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, Pentagon Papers, Kent State. Welcome home.
Leonard Berstein’s radical chic, Betty Friedan and her damn mystique. Welcome home.
Failure to communicate, college students demonstrate. Home!
Japanese cars, topless bars, Traitors pass for movie stars. Home!
Home to a regained life. Home to a stained wife. Home. There’ll be Hell to pay.
Home. Who remembers Veterans Day?
Turn on, Tune in, Drop out, Cop out, Right on, Sit-in, Love-in, Come on, Give in, Give out,
Put out, Put on, Right on, Hang-up, Uptight, Far out, Sell-out, Burn out, Freak out.
While Thompson’s complaints about how things have changed emphasize loose morals, it is pitched in technological advances like getting to the moon and use of credit cards. The you in “Apocalyptic Drone” is a soldier much like Thompson and is especially experienced in the fragment Dulce et decorum est which alludes to the quote from the Roman poet Horace Dulce et decorum estpro patria mori, meaning it is sweet and right to die for one’s country. Both the poem and text of Thompson’s tirade about how things have changed makes us ask the question what have I given up for my country and was it worth what has happened or will happen to me?
Of course you don’t want to die,
but the drone is coming today.
The drone that delivered your meals, Amen.
The one that pressure-washed your house,
walked your three poodles,
and trimmed your azaleas and sago palms.
The drone is coming today.
It delivered three call girls
and Viagra to your home last week.
By now you’ve received
those benzodiazepines to ease your fear of laserization.
It’s already towed away your driverless car.
Your lupus? Too costly to treat.
As you require dental implants to chew a good steak,
your work is done, your strength is weak.
Remember, you voted for this in 2019.
The drone is coming today.
Repeat the phrase, thy rod and they staff…
These words shall bring solace your way.
The drone is soon to arrive. Amen.
Smile. Laugh. Profess your last prayer.
Relax. Rest. Dulce et decorum est.
The drone is coming today.
by Joe Zealberg
Photo credit: Nicholas Karlindr