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The Agony And...The Agony

New York
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church., 346 West 20th Street
11/12/2015 -  & November 14, 2015
Tom Cipullo: Glory Denied
Kate Oberjat (Younger Alyce), Martha Guth (Older Alyce), Brandon Snook (Younger Thompson), Peter Kendall Clark (Older Thompson), Lunne Hayden-Fiondlay (Stage Director, Costume Design), Michael Megliola (Technical Director/Lighting Design)
Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra, Carmine Aufiero (Guest Conductor)

P.J. Clark, K. Oberjat, M. Guth (© Robert J. Saferstein)

”I sing of war and of the man..”
Virgil, The Aeneid

The newest production by Chelsea Opera sings of war and of a man. But not (in an alternate Virgil translation) of arms and a man. Our man, Colonel Jim Thompson, begins in a Vietnam prison, where he survives. And ends, nine years later freed in America, where he barely exists. No arms except a stick—and emotions—to beat him down. The agony of Glory Denied is made more terrible because this was a true story.

Opera may be a ridiculous form for telling a real story. But somehow, the original “oral biography” by the famed military correspondent Tom Philpott was transformed into opera. And somehow the artifice gives another realism to the horror.

The original piece is of a barely educated New Jersey supermarket clerk, married with a pregnant wife, who is drafted, joins Special Forces, is captured in North Vietnam and spends nine years in prison. His wife, in the meantime, knows nothing of his fate, has an affair, refuses to allow his name to be mentioned “officially” and separates from him after he is freed.

That is the stuff of domestic drama. Mr. Philpott's book shows the agony from all sides: the illusion of his wife's letters in his Vietnam cage, the dreams of renewing life as it was, the fear of a totally unknown America after the traumatic 1960's, the ignorance of a woman more concerned with the spilled breakfast cereal of her baby than her husband.

And of a country which leaves its veterans to drown in misery. Their only solace is that they are now called “heroes”, and that “Armistice Day” is called “Veterans Day.”

That consolation a verbal placebo.

Tom Cipullo is more than a composer, more than a librettist. He is a superb dramatist, and in Glory Denied, he has created an opera which theatrically breaks bounds. His choral masterpiece, Credo for a Secular City could have been a mess, with words by Shakespeare, John Burroughs, John Milton and Matthew Arnold, and the music itself often quoted other composers. Yet it was an organic and sometimes overpowering whole.

With that sense of poetry and theater, his challenge was to take a man and wife and bisect both. He showed them “during” (the imprisonment) and “after” (coming home to a totally new world). He displayed a naive young couple and a kind of mature older couple who live in different worlds. He is looking for an old ideal. She, like Ulysses's Penelope, has betrayed him, and feels no guilt.

Both the man and the woman are divided into two different singers for each “era”. Yet with Mr. Cipullo's structure, these four meet, they dance with each other, they intercept each other, they participate in ensembles and duets...

If Glory Denied had been surrealistic, or, like Eugene O'Neil's pretentious Strange Interlude, where the characters wear masks to reveal their inner thoughts, Mr. Cipullo had resisted both. He has realized that Thomas Pilpott's oral biography must separate each person in two for manifold reasons.

Could any human being—even a Special Forces vet like Colonel Jim Thompson—stay the same person after nine years in a North Vietnamese prison? Could any military housewife with no knowledge of the fate of her husband remain in her own lower middle-class American suburban home without changing the very basis of her life?

Obviously not. So we don't need a “conscious” and “unconscious” man and woman. Mr. Cipullo sees them as four different beings within the same four corporeal bodies. It is an astonishing theatrical conceit. And the reason it works is that war itself bisects the human consciousness. That, as animals, one of our only genetic traits is the survival, of ourselves and our species. That as warriors, we have been drilled not only to deny survival for our species, but to be posthumously rewarded when we sacrifice ourselves.

A perversion not of our humanity but of biology itself.

So this operatic/theatrical schizophrenia is no more abnormal than war itself.

The background on the pulpit of St. Peter's Church was simple, utilitarian. A few chairs. An Army trunk filled with remnants of war. A table, under which could have been the “cage” for the prisoner. The staging was equally minimal. The duets and ensembles seemed natural, the dancing of both couples were both in the foreground and (like a dream) in the background. The characters, with one exception, remained themselves.

That exception was when the “old” soldier turned into a Vietnamese guard, beating the “young” soldier. Which could have dramatically been the old Col. Thompson beating himself as a young man for his naivete. But perhaps I exaggerate.

If this “game of fours” worked, the two-act setting had a serious drawback. Not speaking for the audience, I was gripped by the first act. The beatings, the soliloquies, the fraudulent love letters, the appearance of the “two” wives, were each parts of a puzzle which would have a terrible fate.

The 15-minute intermission broke up the emotional compass. Act Two, equally emotional, consisted largely of “set pieces”, arias and quartets which summoned up audience applause. And while this might be fulfilling, one doubts if a composer of Mr. Cipullo integrity would enjoy having the clap during such a serious opera.

Perhaps I'm wrong. He even gave a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style patter-song to Mr. Clark, offering a litany of American changes (“Peace signs, gas lines, see-through blouses, lying spouses”) and things he misses (“No Sid Ceaser, no frost-freezer”). Clever W.S. Gilbert couplets, too clever by half. And oh, how I wanted conductor Carmine Aufiero to give an attaca right after each solo rather than pause for our reactions.

Still, by the end of this act, and a long soliloquy by the “old” soldier, sitting broken down in his bathrobe by his army trunk, that same gripping despondency has returned.

I've spoken little about the music, and this is unfair. Not only to all four singers and the marvelous Chelsea Opera Chamber Orchestra but to the composer himself. This is conservative 20th Century music. No, the arias are not Verdian even Menotti-ish. But they stand on their merits with various themes repeated. One soliloquy, by Peter Kendall Clark, was for two instruments alone, the Bachian couplet of keyboard (pianist Kristen Kemp) and basso continuo (actually a more lyrical cello by Jameson D. Platte).

The only “stylistic” music was a Copland-Barber lyricism for the two wives. The illusion of comfort.

Acting was superb. But the hosannas go to “young wife” Kate Oberjat, primping and pursing with a cold frozen smile. Both wives looked more like l940's Saturday Evening Post models than 1960's ladies, but that is trivia.

Both she and Martha Guth had phenomenal ranges, and Mr. Cipullo never hesitated to have them swing from the High C rafters, which they did immaculately. Young Colonel Thompson, Brandon Snook, was equally lyrical, and Peter Kendall Clark, both as the stalwart veteran and the broken victim was stunning.

One would like to say that such a story and such an opera has the tragic sense of catharsis, yet the agony seemed ceaseless. Nor will we see a repeat of these stories. Today, the same man in a bathrobe and a glass of whiskey, can sit back in Florida, press a button and a whole Pakistani village will evaporate in smoke.

“Civilization?” asked James Joyce's Buck Mulligan. “I say 'Syphilization!'” Mr. Cipullo has caught both in this bitter and so memorable opera.

Harry Rolnick



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