Will composer Tom Cipullo forgive me for comparing his much-performed 2007 operatic theater piece Glory Denied with both Hair and Fidelio? The morning after last night’s student run in Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s 31 Hemenway Theater, Cipullo’s PoW saga is summoning strains of “Gott, welch’ Dunkel hier!” and “Let the Sun Shine In,” rather than echoes of its own jagged and angry vocalisms. And since Glory Denied tells the tale of the Green Beret prisoner of war and his wife with pairs of singers representing him and her at two stages of their progress and decline, one is also permitted to think about the Schubert-Heine Doppelgänger.
Tom Philpott fashioned his oral history (2001) of Colonel Floyd “Jim” Thompson, the longest-serving American prisoner of war, and his wife Alyce from copious interviews and bureaucratic communiques. Its doubtless authenticity must have inspired the composer to set the decidedly plebeian and unpoetic texts as a cautionary tale about how an individual, even a determined survivor, can be crushed by governmental hubris. Since Colonel Jim never rises above his suffering as a day-at-a-time survivor of prison abuse or his reentry rejection, and Alyce alternates between a clueless, perfect 1960s housewife and an unforgiving (if forgiven) harridan, this story cannot serve as a universal moral lesson or meet the dimensions of tragedy. In this era post-Abu Ghraib era, despite the protagonist’s paean to God and country, the show cannot hold up America as a light to the nations. In a way, Alyce seems more villainous than either the US or Vietcong governments. Perhaps one lesson can be drawn: governments and individuals alike torture and dehumanize the “other,” and then we get drunk, or go mad and die.
The East Coast premiere of the full orchestral version began as tenor Willie Casper, the younger Thompson, and baritone Kyle White, his older self, depicted victimhood from torture and interrogation while also taking on the roles of “their” torturers. On stage right, the younger Alyce, soprano Audrey Ballish, looked perfect as the aproned housewife straight out of Mad Men or from a Betty Crocker box. In a vocalized letter, she sang of a pleasant if drab life at home, naturally oblivious of her second-act transformation. Her older counterpart, heldensoprano Gabrielle Clutter, much more present in the second act, appeared in the first perhaps to allow for quartet set pieces, of which there were many in the double doppelgänger word stew. Action went on pretty much continuously, in contrast to the second act, which rewarded arias with showstopping applause. The game student orchestra managed to get across the lush distress with just enough polish from overtaxed strings and clean colors from other departments. The well-executed piano stride, or whatever it was, would have sounded better on a barroom upright than on the apparently electronic keyboard. Percussion underlined rat-a-tat text in a number of effective ways. Andrew Altenbach maintained good balance between the players deep within the pit and the singers above, and kept the rather relentless and unvaried music going; Act One felt very short even with all of those annoying and angular leaps in the vocal lines. He also led an effective late second act interlude that summed up the show. In fact, it could have nicely repeated as a postlude after the final curtain, while closing titles revealed the fates of the accursed couple.
Scenic designer Dan Daly’s jaggedly morphing backdrop conjured a granite prison wall and, with Aja M. Jackson’s projections, the gash of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. Jackson’s colorful lighting peered menacingly through chinks in the painted-canvas stone, or when the upper stones rose into the fly, suffused the stage and left behind a modern henge. A metal chair and a whip served as the sole props. For the prisoner’s Act Two reentry into a hostile, unrecognizable America, graphics of peace symbols, Richard Nixon and so forth descended on top-illuminated plexi panels. This mainly interior drama called for little stage business. Director Johnathon Pape choreographed the prison scene with suitable violence, pulling and contorting the prisoner in blue-striped pajamas as if with marionette strings. Images of the older Thompson beating the younger Thompson confused. What kind of a guilt trip was this? The younger Mr. and Mrs. Thompson shared a stage kiss. Otherwise we witnessed mostly stand and deliver postures.
Among the second act’s many character-defining arias White commanded the stage in his extended songs of Thompson’s madness and decline. His disorientingly out-of-place catalog patter aria on God and country went on too long, but he nailed it. He depicted blue-collar or Green Beret Weltschmerz with tireless sonority. In lighter tones Casper reflected on what might have been with the young soldier. Aggrieved wife Clutter delivered shrill, self-righteous hatefulness in powerful tones, creating a memorable stage villain, while Ballish with charmingly, fixed smile and in lovely sound, aria-ized over shopping lists in the nifty ’60s suburbs.
Alyce’s radicalizing transformation constitutes the most glaring unanswered question of this opera. For his next outing, Cipullo should tell us the story from the perspective of this loudly inscrutable woman and stage villain.
Glory Denied may not come across with the wallop of a better-told tale or a well-made play, but the show did stir this draft-dodger’s memory. In telling the personal story of a suffering cipher, it stimulates boomer audiences to reflect more broadly on the radicalism, patriotism, and disorder from an era when Americans demonstrated our ideals with more risk to personal comfort, whether we offered loyalty to God, country, Army, family, or secular morality.
We know why that other prison drama Fidelio endures, but why do Hair, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, and other such deeply felt popular movies and plays continue to haunt us? Unlike Glory Denied, they get into the heads of their characters.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer