Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Opera Wednesday: JFK, the opera

It seems an unlikely proposition, an opera called JFK, and even after one ascertained that it was not a musical version of the Oliver Stone movie, that it was in fact set in Fort Worth, Texas on the last night of John F. Kennedy's life, it was still a bit hard to envision. But now it can be told, that the world premiere of JFK by the Fort Worth Opera justifies every risk taken, every doubt overcome.

From the outset of this modern composition, a mixture of the melodic and the atonal which was occasionally harsh and jarring but never crossed the line into Schoenbergian territory, the listener knows things will not end well. It's not just because we know the ending, either - as Jacqueline Kennedy (a suburb Daniela Mack) stands before a window staring into the Fort Worth night while her husband soaks his ailing back in the bathtub, as midnight passes into the beginning of John Kennedy's last day on earth, there is a sense of grim oppressiveness combined with a wistfulness, a looking back that becomes almost a valedictory on a life that was better than some but often fell short.

Jackie is burdened with Jack's excruciating back pain, for which she routinely gives him shots of morphine; torn by the death a little over three months before of infant son Patrick after just two days of life; haunted also by the additional memories of a miscarriage in 1957 and the birth of a stillborn daughter, Arabella, in 1956. So powerful are the nightmares caused by these memories, she occasionally has to resort to morphine herself in order to achieve a dreamless sleep.

For John (baritone Matthew Worth), too, there is unease under the dashing surface. His medical problems, certainly (including the adrenal disorder Addison’s disease, ulcers, colitis, and allergies), but also the memory of a favorite sister, Rosemary, who underwent a lobotomy in 1941, and the knowledge that his father favors older brother Joe, the Kennedy destined for politics until his death in World War II. In JFK's dreams he is taken first to the moon with Rosemary (the Sea of Serenity), where he is harangued by a belligerent Khrushchev and his Red Army minions; then to Cape Cod, where the memories of the moonlight cause him to relive his initial meeting and subsequent courtship of Jackie, and finally a comedic confrontation with Lyndon Johnson and his posse of rhinestone-laden camp followers, with Jack constantly having to caution LBJ not to withdraw his "Jumbo."

All the while, the Kennedys are ministered to by two outsiders: a chambermaid (Talise Trevigne) and Secret Service agent (Sean Panikkar) who simultaneously serve two additional roles: first, that of  Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone, the couple who shared the box with Abraham and Mary Lincoln the night of his assassination; and second, as The Spinner and The Alloter, two of the three Greek Fates. The Spinner, it is explained, unspools the metaphorical thread of life, while The Alloter measures out the length of that thread. The third Fate, The Cutter, is the one who cuts the thread at the end of life. The Cutter is unseen in the opera; he awaits in Dallas.

In Act Two, as John speaks before a crowd gathered outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Jackie is brought face-to-face with her future self, Jackie Onassis (Katharine Goeldner), who helps the young Jackie dress in her iconic pink suit and hat. Together with the maid, the three women sing a poignant trio as Mrs. Onassis assures Mrs. Kennedy that her husband will love her "every day" of the rest of his life, not adding that this life has only hours to go. It, along with the love duet sung by the young Jack and Jackie, are the show-stoppers of the opera, the two pieces that triggered spontaneous and long applause from the audience.

While Jackie leaves with the luggage, Jack slips into his familiar grey suit and, musing on how much his wife has sacrificed for him and how unworthy he is, he sings of how lucky a man he is, before he joins her for the short trip to Dallas. If there is any truth to the theory that the two Kennedys were growing closer, that fatherhood combined with the tragic death of Patrick had caused JFK to strive to become a better husband, it likely came about in much this way.

The opera is far from perfect, as is the case with most premieres. The scene with LBJ, for example, is very broad, to the point that the audience is encouraged to laugh perhaps more heartily than the material justifies. Johnson was, clearly, a larger-than-life character; the attempts by men in Kennedy's administration to marginalize him, and the dual insecurity of the two men (LBJ by his desire to be loved, JFK by Johnson's suggestion that the younger man is too inexperienced to be president) deserves a bit more gravitas than is given.

The triple roles played by Ms. Trevigne and Mr. Panikkar are also overly complicated. Without the pre-opera talk from the director, it would have been virtually impossible to link the two to the characters of Harris and Rathbone, and the tangential connections made to Lincoln's assassination are not only tenuous but unnecessary, cluttering up an already-crowded storyline. For those of us accustomed to stories of angels assuming human form on earth, the idea of the Fates assuming the identities of a heretofore unknown maid and Secret Service agent are plausible enough; adding another layer is not.

The use of the Fates, though, I found to be highly effective, for in the end the story of John F. Kennedy is a tragedy of its own. The assassination itself is never depicted on stage; instead, the Fates, having sent their charges to meet their destiny, watch on a television set while a grainy copy of the Zapruder film plays on the set's backdrop. The fateful moment, when the gunshots of Lee Harvey Oswald - The Cutter - fatally strike the president's head, is hidden from the audience by a piece of furniture; the reaction of the Fates as they see the unseen drama on TV, tell the story eloquently.

Thaddeus Strassberger's set design is by turns garish, sinister and intimate, and the occasional use of rear projection images, especially during the Jack/Jackie duet, is striking. And we can't really end without a shout-out to the Fort Worth Symphony, conducted by Steve Osgood. The musicians performed a new and often challenging piece of music quite capably, and the long ovation that greeted them prior to the start of the final act was fully justified.

David Little and Royce Vavrek, responsible for the music and libretto respectively, blend the ongoing narrative and the numerous flashbacks well, though it's likely that continued performances will result in a more polished presentation. Musically, the opera reminded me a great deal of John Adams' Nixon in China, in that it combines lovely melodies with harder, bolder modern sounds. In addition, both operas eschew for the most part the classical structure of arias and duets, instead choosing to present the dialogue in what essentially amounts to an extended recitative.

Ultimately, whether or not you agreed with John Kennedy's politics, whether or not you saw Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as one of the world's most glamorous women (and the sympathetic portraits given here would encourage you to do both), this is really about of a young couple who rose to the top but never had the opportunity to enjoy the quiet moments that life presents in the subsequent years, when all is said and done and days are spent reminiscing while sitting in rocking chairs enjoying the late summer sun. The sinister sense of foreboding presented at the beginning is fully delivered by the end. That we're unable to prevent it from happening has frustrated artists to no end over the years (see: King, Stephen, for example), but that very inevitability, augmented as it is by our knowledge of the assassination's aftermath, is what compounds the tragedy.

One of the objectives of JFK, Little and Vavrek explained, is to remind us that the iconic figures of American history are also mortals, human beings with human lives. Flawed though it may be, their effort presents this in a very moving, powerful way. The story of John F. Kennedy is, as I said, a tragedy, and there is no better vehicle to present tragedy than that of opera. If it failed in every other respect - and, believe me, it doesn't - it would have earned its place in the opera world from that alone.

1 comment:

  1. The beauty of the space and food get 5 juicy stars. The place was built with class! I'm no critic, but this place makes you appreciate design and aesthetics. I went to two events at venues in Chicago. Both times, I had a great experience.


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