If your parents taught you that opera is the ultimate blend of words and music, where both elements are dependent on the other and that the end result is far more than the sum of its parts, and if you have since developed a taste for chamber opera, then you must hurry to see Tom Cipullo’s opera Glory Denied.
Currently being given a magnificent production by UrbanArias at Keegan Theater,
all the necessary elements of Glory Denied coordinate smoothly and precisely. To begin
with, Cipullo’s libretto is based on the oral history of Captain Floyd “Jim” Thompson
written by Tom Philpott in 2001. Philpott’s book uses the words of the Thompson family
through letters, interviews, and radio transcripts. So the basis of the libretto is very real.
Thompson was shot down over Vietnam on March 26, 1964. Captured by the Viet Cong
and held for nine years, Thompson became America’s longest-held POW. He also became
an enigma from the moment he disappeared. His wife, Alyce, had no idea if she was still
married or if she was a widow. Eventually, not able to raise four children on her own, she
became involved with another man. When Thompson finally returned in 1973, his beloved
wife was gone as was his paternal role in the family he had known before Vietnam. Even
his cherished image of America was gone forever, replaced by hot pants and topless
Since the opera’s main concern is an investigation of Jim and Alyce, both when they are young and when they are older looking back at their younger selves, Cipullo invents a way of fracturing their personalities, a perpetual reminder that the war has split the Thompson’s marriage apart.
He uses four characters: Older Thompson, Older Alyce, Younger Thompson, and Younger Alyce. This ingenious device allows four people to interact constantly, providing a unique, kaleidoscopic effect. Sometimes the characters sing alone; sometimes they sing in duets; sometimes three of them sing together, or they all sing together.
Cipullo sets his libretto’s first duet as a confrontation between Older Thompson (Timothy Mix), dressed as a Navy officer with colorful, honorific bars across his chest, and Younger Thompson (John Riesen), barefoot, dressed in dirty, ripped Navy pants and jacket, his prisoner-of-war rags.
Older Thompson sings of his “intelligence training” which allowed him to know what his jailers were trying to do. Younger Thompson—his face and arms filthy—sings of what he had to do to stay alive from going into the jungle to get firewood to repeating nonsensical propaganda.
Not long after the first introduction of the men, Cipullo introduces Younger Alyce (Cree Carrico), who is very pregnant. She adds her perspective to the men’s voices, establishing very clearly that, though she misses Jim, she is fighting the Vietnam War as much as her husband is.
Soon, Older Alyce (Caroline Worra) is introduced, the woman for whom the last nine years have been an eternity and a nightmare, as much as Jim’s jungle huts in Laos and Vietnam have been. Letters? What good do letters do for a woman who is trying to raise four children by herself?
It is hard to imagine a more perfect cast for Glory Denied than this one. Cree Carrico’s sparkling, supple voice perfectly suits the young woman who has such high hopes for her marriage and growing family. Caroline Worra’s powerful, fluent soprano is equally well-suited to Older Alyce, who believes that she has lived through torture and isolation equal to that of her husband.
John Riesen’s substantial tenor remains strong through all the scenes in which he appears as Younger Thompson: from being kicked on the ground by his jailer to seeing the jungle for the first time at the end of the war with wonder and joy. Timothy Mix has many scenes where his muscular voice is perfectly matched to the score, both to the gentle music and to that which is filled with anxiety.
The conductor of Glory Denied, Robert Wood, is the founder of UrbanArias. He leads
the opera with tremendous clarity and sensitivity, making sure the orchestra moves easily from the lyrical to the intense. In this production, Wood directs members of Inscape Chamber Orchestra, a nine-piece orchestra that sounds like twenty.
The opera’s director, Kristine McIntyre, keeps the action moving swiftly in the small space of the Keegan Theater. Adam Crinson’s set design is a square playing space bracketed by two pentagonal-shaped panels, stage left and stage right, for projections. Kathy Maxwell’s lighting design provides marvelous patterns of light and shade to increase Jim’s isolation in his Laotian and Vietnamese prisons. Maxwell also provides projections that set important scenes: the document ending the Vietnam War; the windows of the church where Older Thompson imagines himself being welcomed home.
Costume designer Grace Santamaria dresses Younger Alyce in a perfect late 1950s outfit, a pink dress, pink headband, and low heels. Santamaria dresses Older Alyce in a maroon shirt, slacks, and a long sweater, appropriate to the early 1970s.
There is little subtlety or ambiguity in Glory Denied. But then there is no subtlety or
ambiguity in war. At a time when rational Americans must be thinking about war – either the ones we have fought or those that may come – and at a time when the fate of our veterans is on the front page of every paper throughout the country, it seems more than appropriate that UrbanArias would want to produce Glory Denied right now.
Not only is it the appropriate time, it’s an amazing musical experience. Just like those classic operas your parents taught you about, the total worth of Glory Denied is far more than the sum of its parts.
Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission.