‘Ballad of Baby Doe’ provides a rarified experience
Ryan Summerlin July 5, 2006
Rarely in live musical performance does the time and the place, the company and the cast all come together to create the perfect experience – a performance that gives the viewer the feeling that this could never be done as perfectly by anyone else, anywhere else in the world.Central City Opera’s 50th anniversary production of “The Ballad of Baby Doe” provides that rarified experience. If an opera can be said to “belong” to any one opera company, then “The Ballad of Baby Doe” belongs to the Central City Opera House, which commissioned the work and gave it its world premiere on July 7, 1956. The famous late-1800s Colorado story of the Tabor Triangle, involving silver baron Horace Tabor, his first wife Augusta and the legendary beauty Baby Doe, whom he married and who remained so famously faithful after his death in poverty, is portrayed in this lovely work which, with its tuneful score and well-written libretto, many consider to be the finest of all American operas. According to “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” true love may not conquer all, but it survives all.The magic of this 50th anniversary production is largely thanks to conductor and music director John Moriarty. Maestro Moriarty is considered one of the world’s leading experts on “Baby Doe,” and has conducted the work more than any else. His intimate knowledge of (and love for) the opera glowed in every note. Musically each phrase was perfectly nuanced, giving weight and lushness to Douglas Moore’s melodious score. In addition, Moriarty coached his exceptionally fine cast into giving sensitive, human portrayals. John Latouche’s clever, often heart- wrenching libretto was delivered with crisp, letter-perfect diction – which is not surprising, since Moriarty is the author of “Diction,” a work that many consider to be the blue book of diction for American opera singers.Soprano Joanna Mongiardo is a radiant Baby Doe, whose smile embraces and disarms not only the other characters onstage (including her nemesis Augusta) but the audience as well. Her much-awaited high D in Act One’s “Willow Song” simply shimmers. In addition to shimmering stratospheric notes, her warm soprano carries some heft, enabling her to endow the character with dramatic overtones, as the opera propels her toward its tragic conclusion. This is a Baby Doe that does more than charm – she matures into magnificent womanhood.As Horace Tabor, Jake Gardner projects power and raw ambition without the clichéd overtones of bluster and braggadocio. His voice resonates compellingly and with much beauty in a tuneful role that nevertheless requires the singer to cut through the music and deliver the goods, dramatically speaking. Gardner does so with aplomb, bringing back memories of the great baritone Walter Cassel, the opera’s original Horace Tabor.Joyce Castle’s Augusta Tabor is a finely-wrought, well-thought-out characterization throughout, beginning with all the vigor of an active – if rather bossy – woman and ending with a woman palsied with illness and despair, still not entirely comprehending why Tabor chose to leave her. Vocally she handles Augusta’s histrionics – both musical and emotional – superbly, covering a fiendishly difficult role with a mantle of dignity and even beauty.There is not a false note, not a jarring anachronism in either the sets or costumes. With little space available on stage, scenic designer Michael Anania has worked wonders. Opulence is more than merely suggested in the Washington wedding scene, with its background of golden drapery, and in the fine Edwardian architectural elegance portrayed at the Tabor mansion in Denver. Irony is provided as well, such as in the scene where the abandoned Augusta is surrounded by her friends, society’s respectable wives, who are there not to commiserate but to counsel vengeance – after all, it may happen to them, too. Augusta sits on a plush Victorian settee, in front of huge, oversized wall hangings – silhouettes of Horace and Augusta, done in the early days of marriage, and silently providing a subtle, wry comment on the proceedings. The keynote to the opera is the vicissitudes of life when dictated to by passions of the human heart – and the way we stubbornly adhere to those passions. Each of the three protagonists in this true-to-life tragedy clung to their belief, their passion and their love – which led to their physical undoing. The whole is encapsulated in one of the most moving, poignant closing scenes in all of opera, as Baby Doe cradles the dying Tabor and sings the opera’s final love song, “I Will Walk Beside My Love.” The final scene was sung and staged in an especially emotionally gripping way, pulling the work together to impart its full emotional impact.The rest of the story – the remaining 36 years of poverty for Baby Doe as she lived in the abandoned one-room cabin in Leadville next to the shaft of the Matchless Mine – is hinted at in the final tableau, which shows Baby Doe standing in front of the Matchless, singing of her undying love for Tabor as the blowing snow begins to fall on Fryer Hill. It is a powerful contrast – and this opera is full of powerful contrasts – to her former life full of love, comfort and warmth. But throughout, the theme that ties everything together is love.And love is what the entire company at Central City gave to this very special production.This is a must-see, in every sense of that well-worn cliché. Beg, borrow or do whatever you have to do to get a ticket. We may not see another “Ballad of Baby Doe” like this in our lifetime.