So much hangs in the balance during a chance encounter between Tim Laughlin and Hawk Fuller one afternoon in Washington DC’s DuPont Circle. America, newly emerged from World War II, is fighting in Korea and busy expunging Communist elements from its own populace: it is the height of McCarthyism and Washington’s paranoia has culminated in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450, condemning “sexual perversion,” which purged an estimated 1,200 federal employees accused of homosexual activity from the government in what is now known as the “lavender scare”. Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers, based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same title, follows Tim Laughlin and Hawk Fuller through the tragic arc of their love story in front of this perilous scrim.
The Boston Lyric Opera gave the Boston premiere Wednesday evening to a packed, appreciative audience in the Emerson Paramount Center. Playwright Gregory Pierce’s taut libretto compelling drama, seamlessly stitched together in 16 taut scenes. Spears conceives the frantic paranoia of McCarthy’s Washington DC with a minimalist score that is compelled by a persistent tactus: at times, this music may have been lifted directly from Stravinsky or Philip Glass, but Spears also finds his own affable minimalism informed by baroque and classical elements. Although this music is energetic and exciting, the most memorable moments come during the story’s emotional climaxes: the frenzy of Spears’s spare sonic backdrop gives way to a warm swirl of woodwinds as the youthful Tim awakens to his feelings for the confident, experienced Hawk in the opening moments of the opera. Later on, lush strings underscore their encounter as the two men give way to their passions. Their happiness is not long-lived: Hawk, for all his sexual daring, ultimately seeks a life that is more conventional for 1950s America: carefully manicuring a lawn, or deploying repairs to a home he lives in with his wife in the DC suburbs. Tim, for all his reticence, seeks out a life together with the man he loves—a relationship the latter is either unwilling or unable to provide. Politics and rumor whirl about the two men trapped in this fundamental incompatibility: both circumstance and personal shortcoming all but guarantee their tragic end.
Emily Senturia’s baton led the BLO orchestra in a fleet, under-two-hour performance that served the eclectic appeal of Spears’s score quite well. This tightly-drawn performance nevertheless paid full attention to the charming instrumental doodles that richly ornament the orchestral score and left ample room for the sonically-rich emotional climaxes that make Fellow Travelers so satisfying. Peter Rothstein’s expert staging playfully balanced swift changes of interlaced scenes with ease and elegance; Trevor Bowen’s richly drawn period costumes complemented the spare staging.
Jesse Darden achieved something deeply moving as Tim Laughlin, bringing a thoughtful intelligence to bear on this introspective, often conflicted character. Darden makes full use of his broad range and clear, effortless tone in a wide-eyed ecstatic performance of his extended aria “Last Night”. But Darden’s art comes to bear as we see Tim realize his life with Hawk is an impossibility–Darden’s bright effervescence hardens and matures to become the staid, dejected Laughlin in the final scene of the opera, superbly controlled and chilling.
As Hawk, baritone Jesse Blumberg was delightful and immediately engaging: his dark, broad sound easily provided solid basis for a believable, seductive swagger. Blumberg’s interpretation matures with his character: circumstance tempers his initial confidence and Blumberg effectively conveys the character’s brooding interior life. Blumberg’s sensitive turn in Hawk’s final aria “Our very own home” was the dramatic highlight of the entire evening.
In a plot driven by the love story between two men in the age of the Lavender Scare, little development occurred for the supporting characters. If there is one blind-spot in Pierce’s libretto, it is here: despite all the intrigue, we are left to wonder about Mary Johnson, who has an unwanted pregnancy after a holiday party indiscretion and leaves Washington for an abortion; more consideration of this role would have the added benefit on Wednesday night of showcasing Chelsea Basler’s dramatic, radiant soprano more prominently. In supporting roles: baritone James Maddalena was whimsically stern as Senator Potter, while David McFerrin’s brassy baritone made for a chilling Senator McCarthy.
Premiered in 2016 at Cincinnati Opera, Fellow Travelers has enjoyed successes across the United States, and Wednesday’s enthusiastic reception at the BLO presages a warm reception here. The opera tells a compelling romantic drama while recording a dark period in US history; the final reminded us that this dark period is not completely over: Eisenhower’s executive order from 1953 began to be dismantled, beginning in 1975, and was only fully repealed in January 2017 as one of the final acts the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry officially apologized on January 9th 2017. The subsequent administration revoked the apology on January 23rd 2017.