Frederica von Stade is the raison d'être for Ricky Ian Gordon’s latest opera A Coffin in Egypt. So, to complain that the opera itself leaves much to be desired is to miss the point. You don’t see an essentially one-woman opera specifically tailored for a specific diva because you think the opera is going to be great drama. You go because you would likely hear her sing anything.

Frederica von Stade and Carolyn Johnson © Kelly & Massa
Frederica von Stade and Carolyn Johnson
© Kelly & Massa
The last time I heard von Stade, it was in her “farewell” performances in Chicago in 2010. The mezzo-soprano starred in Jake Heggie’s newly revised opera Three Decembers with Chicago Opera Theater, and also appeared in recital accompanied by the composer. I remember the recital vividly, though the opera was not very memorable.

In fact, reviews of Three Decembers bear headlines that are remarkably similar to my own for A Coffin in Egypt. And, while I hate to put another nail in the coffin, I confess that I more-or-less agree that this opera, too, is not very memorable.

The problem with A Coffin in Egypt is not, necessarily, the source material. Horton Foote’s southern gothic play by the same name tells of ninety-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, whose life spanned the Great Depression and several wars. She recalls her life in Texas, her travels around the world, and tragedies that befell her family. But, even the most emotionally wrought moments felt forced, and the drama came across a bit like a made-for-TV movie.

Gordon’s score, overall, does not contain much interest. A few passages stood out, particularly when Myrtle angrily members her husband’s lover, Maude Jenkins. But, Myrtle repeats this music, and other sections as well, in her frenzied senility.

Certainly, lyric time relies on repetition. But large, structural repetitions must be considered very carefully so they do not become tiresome and predictable. By limiting the amount of material that is repeated, Gordon could have made these flashbacks much more impactful.

Occasional gospel quartets, sung by Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris and Frank Mitchell, provided some variety in what is otherwise a one-woman show. Still, as other reviewers have commented, these choruses were not arranged in very interesting ways, and resultantly did not sound like true Southern gospel. One exception was the chorus, “I am home in God,” which had a more interesting textures and timbres than the others. 

Frederica von Stade © Kelly & Massa
Frederica von Stade
© Kelly & Massa

The nine-piece chamber ensemble sounded anemic at times, though had more vigor during a number when Myrtle meditates on the beautiful planes of Texas (“In the spring, wildflowers…”).

The music was interspersed with spoken monologues and dialogue. Though Von Stade is a highly talented singing actress, I was impressed by her ability to act with her speaking voice. In fact, I think I might have been more affected during her spoken monologues than when she was singing.

Actress Carolyn Johnson, who doubled as Myrtle’s relative Elsie and a department store clerk, was memorably charismatic. But, when Johnson, as Elsie, reveals that her own son has killed her husband, Leonard Foglia’s libretto and stage direction did not allow the character to react appropriately to this horrific tragedy.

The stage design consisted primarily of three large curved panels, printed with images of cotton-fields to evoke the plains of Texas where Myrtle spent most of her life. A few pieces of furniture suggested her plantation home itself.

Though nothing was terribly offensive about the set, it lacked any true style and, to me, did not seem a fitting frame for a diva like von Stade. I would have preferred something even more chicly minimal to keep the focus on the soloist.

While I hope the A Coffin rests in peace, I would rather see a disappointing new opera than yet another production of an opera I have seen countless times before. As companies across the United States struggle to keep their lights on, creating new works is more important now than ever. And, I am certainly glad I had the opportunity to hear von Stade come out of retirement for this performance.