When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. With Aycock Auditorium closed for renovations, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Music and UNCG Theatre made fine lemonade in the form of a joint production with the Greensboro College Department of Music of Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. The use of Gail Huggins Performance Center with its recessed orchestra pit was most welcome, as were the opportunities for both schools’ faculty and students. The only real deficiency was the absence of supertitles.
Crowell’s Handbook of World Opera really cuts to the chase describing Moore’s opera’s plot: “Baby Doe, having left her husband, enters the life of the respectable Horace Tabor, thirty years her senior. It means ruin for him in the society of the early West, but her love for him becomes deep and true.” Add to this Tabor’s obsession with the monetary standard based on silver, leading to his ruin when the gold standard is adopted. The Ballad of Baby Doe premiered July 7, 1956, in Central City, Colorado. The opera’s characters are based on historical people in Leadville, Colorado, in the 1880s. Much of the opera’s fame began with assumption of the role of Baby Doe by Beverly Sills during the 1958 spring season of the New York City Opera.
This production called for a huge cast. To the lead singers were added many important minor characters as well as a large chorus and the all-student UNCG Opera Orchestra. Jonathan P. Brotherton, Director of Choral Activities at Greensboro College, kept action onstage and ensemble in the pit on tight reins. Balances were good or better most of the time, with singers rarely covered. There were some sensitive instrumental solos. David Holley, Director of Opera at UNCG, worked his usual magic as Producer-Stage Director, blocking stage soloists and ensembles for the best dramatic effect. The sets were evocative and easily modified for scene changes. Randall J. McMullen was credited as Scene Designer. Co-Costume Coordinators Deborah Bell and Jerry Kidd made good design selections, evoking the age of bustles vividly, along with grimy miners. Kasendra Bell's lighting designs were effective. The fine chorus reflected Cory Alexander’s careful preparation.
Space will allow a focus upon the three major characters. Mad scenes are usually given to sopranos but Moore gives a meaty one to the lead baritone, Horace Tabor, in Scene 5 of Act II. This scene in which the ruined Tabor is haunted by people from his past gave senior vocal performance major Neal Stratford Sharpe ample room to display his solid and well-projected voice and strong acting. At one point the entire stage was filled with the ghosts of his memories and delusions. Sharpe is a very promising talent with plenty of potential.
While mezzo-soprano Hope Fairchild Thacker’s voice lacked the weight of Frances Bible, the Augusta of the N.Y. City Opera production, she lacked nothing in conveying the complexities and growth of her character. She was very believable as the deeply hurt, spurned wife and embodied her declining health. Her singing was excellent but her “aging” of the character was most impressive.
CVNC has reviewed soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden's successes in earlier UNCG opera productions along with professional appearances with Opera Carolina and Capital Opera Raleigh. Secure high notes and firm vocal control across her range were evident throughout her assumption of Baby Doe. Her confrontation with Augusta was a dramatic highlight, as was her promise to Tabor to keep the silver mine. The historic Baby Doe was found frozen to death at age 73 in the mining shack where she had kept vigil for 35 years after Tabor's death.