Brandon Snook & Jason Switzer in Glory Denied (ph: Bob Bezushko/VulcanLyric)
Conductor Andrew Kurtz has established a new opera troupe in Philly called Vulcan Lyric, building on his previous venture, Center City Opera Theater, which focused on presenting new operas and collaborating with a roster of regular, mostly Philly-based singers.
Vulcan’s kicked off with a festival the first weeks in August, with of four productions running for at the Prince Theater in Center City. A mixed opera bag to appeal to different tastes, with Heathers The Musical, moving into more pop theater territory; the with a cast of 18, taking a critical drumming, but attracting young audiences; Mexican composer Daniel Catan’s La hija de Rappaccini, which featured elaborate video/set design; a Vulcan premiere commission , Maren Vargo: Satan’s Bride, by Jeff Myers and Royce Vavrek, about a Norwegian girl being accused of witchcraft.
The fourth production was Glory Denied, by composer/librettist Tom Cipullo,, proved the artistic breakout for Vulcan. This musically brilliant docu-opera based on the oral history of Vietnam vet Colonel Floyd James Thompson, who spent nine years in a POW camp only to return to an ungrateful nation and a shattered marriage.
Staged in the intimate cabaret theater at the Prince, suited for director’s Leland Kimball’s accessible staging, using elements of physical theater. The fine cast of singers moving back and forth through time and borders. The story of Thompson’s captivity and what happens to his heart, mind and soul unfold in gripping prison scenes. Meanwhile, the lives of those who love him without knowing if he is dead or alive, over years, is equal torture. When he comes home to reclaim his life at the end of the war, he must deal with even more trauma.
Haunting and disturbing visuals in such scenes as Thompson on the street begging for work or the stillness of Alyce trying to move on resigned to the fact that her husband was killed. Or the younger Thompson handing his older self a bottle of JD retrieved out of a trunk draped in the American Flag and the older soldier downing half in one gulp.
The power of Thompson’s memoir is transferred to lyrics so coherently locked into Cipullo’s orchestral score, makes this opera uniquely visceral. Conductor Benjamin Grow’s fine detailing delivered the ferocious power of this score. Cipullo orchestrates with violincello, viola, horn, harp, piano and a slate of percussive instruments. A disquieted violincello line, played with engulfing clarity by Nina Cottman, shadows Jim’s eventual breakdown, among the many standouts.
The cast is just as remarkable. As Younger Jim, tenor Brandon Snook carves out a harrowing emotional terrain in scenes of abuse and confinement. If there can be operatic subtlety with singing while being tortured, keeping himself alive by dreaming of freedom. The rendering of the 23rd psalm, just to name a few vocal challenging scenes, is never sentimental.
Kate Oberjat’s silvery soprano as his young wife Alyce steals your heart as she sings the letter she is writing to Jim, talking about their daughter watching The Wizard of Oz on TV in 1964 and letting Jim know that another baby is on the way. Keeping her fear at bay and vocally essaying a different story.
As Older Alyse, Darla Diltz is volcanic as she conveys how the brutality of her situation, waiting over nine year, eventually, kills all hope in her heart, and emotionally has to move on so she herself can survive. All three of these singers created these roles in the acclaimed Chelsea Opera New York production in 2010
Baritone Jason Switzer appeared in several CCOT productions and is an Academy of Vocal Arts alum, and delivers a towering performance. The steel and silk vocal qualities relentlessly on tap for this challenging role. “Turn on, tune in, drop out….Burn out” Thompson rages in his shattering breakdown that crashes his voice as his spews out a litany culture shocks confronting him as he realizes he is a stranger in his own country.
Thompson and Cipullo’s j’accuse about how vets are treated by an ungrateful nation during the Vietnam era, sadly, resonates today with too many veterans struggling to pick up their lives after serving their country.in two more disastrous wars.
Glory Denied is compelling, relevant opera and kudos to Vulcan Lyric for mounting such a fully realized artistic achievement.
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