World Premiere of New American Opera Shows Immense Promise and Possibility
It’s not often one gets to be present at the birth of a new American opera. Loudon Lyric Opera’s Norton: A Civil War Opera is an exciting new work that shows immense promise and possibility. The partnership of composer David E. Chávez and librettist Meredith Bean McMath yields a work of both soaring emotions and intimate poignancy, drawn from letters written between civil war bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton and his sister, Libby Norton Ploss.
Norton: A Civil War Opera tells the story of a Union private whose feelings about abolition are challenged by the war and its battles. His journey leads him Leesburg, Gettysburg, and the Battle of Olustee. Along the way, Norton creates the hauntingly beautiful Taps for the bugle and gains his officer’s commission as a lieutenant for the 8th U.S. Colored Troop.
As Norton’s sister and writing correspondent, Libby, soprano Melissa Jean Chávez sparkles. As an actress, Chávez commands the stage, and she uses the tremendous range of her gorgeous soprano to full advantage in this role. Her Act One aria, “Dear Brother, You Think I’ve Grown Forgetful” is a joyous blend of humor, exasperation, and Union fervor. The Act Two duet with Norton, “I Am So Tired” is a touching tribute to the genuine beauty of sibling love and affection.
As the Virginia slaves, Thomas and Sarah, Michael Forest and Natalie Barrens deliver standout performances. Forest, a Shenandoah University Associate Professor of Voice who has graced the stages of the Metropolitan Opera, has an expressive and rich tenor voice. His passionate tenor swells in the aria “I Was Born and Raised” telling of his trials growing up next to the Virginia plantation where Nat Turner’s Rebellion began. Barrens’s Sarah serves as a moral guide to Norton, prompting him to see the pain and suffering of the slaves around him and their deep desire to change their own lives for the better. A highlight of the evening is Steal Away, an anguished and ultimately hopeful trio sung with passion and integrity by Chávez, Barrens, and Forest.
Some truly outstanding vocalists flesh out Norton’s world in small, but incredibly important featured roles. As Sergeant Jackson, Bryan Jackson’s rich baritone sears the audience in his powerful duet with Thomas (Michael Forest) as they sing “they shall be overthrown.” Scott Thomas as Confederate soldier Dortch sings lyrically and movingly of Death at Gettysburg in his aria “It Is Marked by the Most Ancient of Poets.” Young Broderick Brown’s voice is sweet and clear in his solo as a young Confederate soldier at Gettysburg. And Margaret Anne Helmick is a scene stealing breath of fresh air as Hattie, a Confederate woman who storms into the Union camp to demand the soldiers quit using her well.
There are some gorgeous moments involving the entire ensemble. At the top of Act 2, the ensemble, led by Libby and Sarah, render the achingly beautiful “How Is Cousin Armistead” in which they wait and worry about news from Gettysburg. There is a lovely counterpointe in which both sides, Union and Confederate, sing the lyrics “I dare not hope but I can dream and pray to God it lasts.” At the end of the war, as Taps hauntingly plays once more, the ensemble leaves the audience with chills as they consider the war and its effects in “You Live a Life.”
The title role of bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton demands a wide range of emotions as the bugler journeys from eager enlistee to war-weary lieutenant of the 8th U.S. Colored Troop. As Norton, baritone Daniel Sherwood’s very best moments are in his tender and sometimes exasperated exchanges with his sister, Libby (Melissa Jean Chávez). A close second are his exchanges with Colonel Butterfield (the expressive bass-baritone Philip Sargent) about the importance of bugle calls, which leads to Sherwood’s lyric and beautiful aria “I Learned the Bugle Calls…It Is a Thing of Beauty.”
At times, the technical aspects of the show threaten to overwhelm the fine work being done on the stage and in the small orchestra. The lighting design by Robert Butcher and the Franklin Park Arts Center is a little jarring for the small stage, particularly in the battle scenes, where flashes of light make it hard to focus on the actors or the subtitles projected center screen. In fact, given that this opera is being sung in English by performers with excellent projection and diction, the subtitles themselves proved to be a bit of an unnecessary distraction, especially during the battle scenes as well as when singers stood on the upper levels and blocked the projections.
The small but mighty orchestra, under the able direction of composer David E. Chávez, does justice to the music and the changing moods of the protagonist. Alex Johnson (pianist), John Tyler Garner (violin), Thomas Valdez (cello), Max Bieryla (percussion), and Stephen Readyoff (percussion) truly make the music soar, whether in the driving battle scenes, the moving hymns to freedom sung by current and former slaves, or the tender and comic exchanges between brother and sister. When bugle soloist Jari Villanueva (Max Bieryla at other performances) plays the haunting, silvery notes of Taps, the audience collectively holds its breath, it’s that beautiful.
Director McMath, who is also the librettist, makes some lovely choices in staging. The ensemble doubles as both the Union and Confederate soldiers and family members, effectively showing how which side of the war a person was on could be determined by the changes of birth or geography. McMath makes effective use of the intimate stage at the Franklin Park Arts Center to draw out finely tuned performances from each of her singers.
Loundon Lyric Opera offers a tantalizing premiere of Norton: A Civil War Opera. The overall production is rich and moving and there are some not-to-be missed performances in this work that tells a unique story in American history. David E. Chávez and Meredith Bean McMath have crafted an important new opera that deserves to have many more productions in this Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.
Norton: A Civil War Opera plays through April 13, 2014 at Franklin Park Arts Center – 36441 Blueridge View Ln, Purcellville, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (540) 338-7973, or purchase them online.