Monday, June 20, 2016

Cincinnati Opera's 'Fellow Travelers' gives contemporary musical and dramatic weight to a Washington tale of suppression and ambition

A manipulator in the classic American vein, Roy Cohn is a distant yet relevant presence in a new  operatic adaptation of Thomas Mallon's novel "Fellow Travelers." Cohn, a deeply closeted gay man, was crucial to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt for Communists in the federal government more than six decades ago.

The opera, with music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Greg Pierce, opened over the weekend in a Cincinnati Opera world premiere at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

Seen Sunday afternoon in its second performance, "Fellow Travelers" is a straightforward narrative of America's complicated relationship with homosexuality. It can be compared with the play "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's elaborate examination of gay life brought forward into the AIDS crisis and rife with fantasy elements foreign to Mallon's focus on the middle 1950s in Washington, D.C. Both works involve Cohn, whose baleful influence extended into the 1980s with a young business tycoon named Donald Trump.

"Hawk" locks eyes with "Skippy" at their initial meeting.
Cohn is a useful figure in comparison of the two works because his demonic presence in American politics, combined with lifelong denial of his sexual orientation, drives the plot of the novel and the opera.

In "Fellow Travelers," Timothy Laughlin is a naive, devoutly Catholic reporter who's come to town intending to get a government position. A park bench in Dupont Circle — the triggering setting for Laughlin's chance meeting with a suave State Department official, Hawkins Fuller — constitutes the first scene.

It sets forth the musical style as well as the dramatic pacing. "Gaydar" is clearly working as the two men become acquainted, and the nervous, perky musical style animates what is happening between them. Charmed and enjoying a chance to exercise his influence, Fuller (nicknamed "Hawk") gets Laughlin, whom he patronizingly calls "Skippy," a speech-writing job with a McCarthy ally, a Michigan senator whose service in World War II cost him his legs and probably his sense of political balance as well. The role was imposingly sung by Vernon Hartman.

Fuller is a switch-hitter, charming to both sexes (as his assistant Mary, portrayed affectingly by Devon Guthrie, warns Laughlin). That opens up both men to betrayal in the repressive atmosphere of the McCarthy era. Prejudice against homosexuality found a convenient outlet in the fear that gay federal workers were especially subject to blackmail and thus had to be rooted out as the war against Communism went domestic and paranoid.

Spears' compositional artistry is influenced by Renaissance and early baroque music, he said in a pre-performance talk moderated by the company's artistic director, Evans Mirageas. He also cited his admiration for Igor Stravinsky's writing for winds. Spears' style comprises the repetitive structures of classic minimalism as well, though the influence is mainly evident in the all-over texture of the music, a feeling that shifts should not be drastically signaled but tucked in.

As it develops, the central relationship's triumphs are highlighted by orchestration and vocal writing that mirror the ornamental practices of early Baroque music. A burst of grandeur a la Gabrieli animates the initial scene. Later, when Laughlin goes to Fuller's office to leave off a political book he has bought for his benefactor, a brief trombone duet signals the bond that is soon to find sexual expression. The ensuing bedroom scenes are ardent, with Hawk the dominant partner.

The rhetoric and lusters of early Baroque were definitely felt. There are decorative wind solos, and some of the string writing, especially in the second act, called for little to no vibrato. There was a stunning scena for Hawkins in the second act, set against a stolid string drone that provided extra tension.

Elsewhere, there were signs of Stravinsky, from the World War I scores up through "Pulcinella," which launched the Russian composer's long neoclassical phase. Some of the vocal writing seemed to owe a debt to the late-neoclassical Stravinsky of "The Rake's Progress," especially its first act. An approach to accompaniment that allows it a great deal of independence while being supportive of the singers was also notable. Spears avoids the division into "numbers" that Stravinsky deliberately revived; commendably, his long-breathed phrases generally avoid the tedious seesawing from parlando to arioso and back again found in many modern operas.

A wonderful vocal ensemble for the main characters near the end has the dramatic and emotional heft of Verdi. The opera's conclusion struck a weak note, however, as Laughlin leaves the stage in silence after his love affair with Hawk has collapsed along with his Washington ambitions. The last music we hear has rather more sweetness, even sentimentality, than the dramatic situation warrants. More bite, asperity, a touch of sourness, seemed called for. The set design at that point includes a projected montage of black-and-white head shots, presumably of blacklisted and cashiered victims of McCarthyism.

Without pressing the "Rake's Progress" analogy too hard, the counterpart of the unctuous demon Nick Shadow in that opera here becomes McCarthy himself (the senator makes a thundering appearance in the second act, sung powerfully by Marcus DeLoach) and his grip on Washington in the early 1950s. A scene showing the ridiculous harassment of suspected gay men had DeLoach as the interrogator isolating Hawkins, whose nonchalant promiscuity has aroused suspicion. Hawk eludes detection, typical of the luck his lover will never enjoy.

The moral dimension of the Stravinsky opera, detailed in scenes drawing on William Hogarth caricatures, has its parallel in "Fellow Travelers" in two directions: Homosexuality itself regarded as a challenge to conventional morality, as it is for Laughlin; and political ambition as a temptation to commit sins of pride and greed according to one's reading of which powerful people to commit to.

In "Fellow Travelers," Hawkins — sung with an overarching self-confidence and brio by baritone Joseph Lattanzi — is a kind of villain only because circumstances force him to dodge victimhood by any means necessary. Our sympathies are more consistently engaged  with Laughlin, whose nervousness, romantic notions and eventual disillusionment and despair were etched in poignant detail by tenor Aaron Blake. Mark Gibson conducted the adept orchestra, punctiliously coordinated with the singers.

Stage director Kevin Newbury was unusually sensitive to the breadth of expressive demands suggested by the score and the libretto. The device of having the cast manage scene shifts was less an intrusion than an oblique commentary on the action. It indicated that "within the Beltway" everyone is pressed into humble duties for survival's sake, in addition to whatever moments of self-assertion and angling for advantage they can conjure from the competitive milieu. In that regard, Washington is the consummate operatic place in the American universe, and "Fellow Travelers" captures one of its most intense, toxic eras by focusing on a heart-tugging romance.

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