The Ballad of Baby Doe
Opera by Douglas Moore
Libretto by John Latouche
Musical and Stage director Jonathan Khuner
July 11-19, 2009
Jillian Khuner as Baby Doe, Torlef Bursting as Horace Tabor, Lisa Houston as Augusta Tabor.
The story of Baby Doe and the love of her life, the miner-turned-millionaire Horace Tabor, surely would be the stuff of legend if it wasn’t absolutely true. As it is, it makes one heck of an opera – so enjoyable one wonders why it isn’t done more often. The San Francisco Opera mounted a splendid production several seasons ago and now its tiny neighbor across the Bay has done the same in Berkeley. Berkeley Opera’s ambitious “Ballad of Baby Doe” has a lot going for it: three strong principals and inventive sets and projections by Jeremy Knight that take you from the depths of a silver mine in Colorado to the heights of society in Washington, DC in an instant.
Then there is the music by Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Moore (“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “Giants in the Earth”). It is modern, yet melodic, making liberal use of folk idioms, dance hall rhythms and political rally marches. The libretto, by John Latouche, is a wonder of poetic vernacular – delivered so clearly by the large cast that the super titles almost are superfluous.
The story is essentially a love triangle but, in a larger sense, it is the story of the American West in the second half of the 19th Century. Tabor, a common laborer from Maine with big dreams, marries the boss’ daughter and heads West to make his fortune. And make it he does, after years of toiling in the mines and behind the counter of a store while his sensible wife, Augusta, cooks and cleans and keeps the books. When Tabor strikes it rich, he builds himself an opera house in Leadville, Colorado, with the richest materials he can import from all over the world. (He already owns the hotel, the bank and the saloon). Enter Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, a deserted wife and the loveliest thing the henpecked Horace ever has seen.
Yes, it’s an affair, one that sets tongues wagging and Augusta packing but it also is true love. Baby sticks with Horace, not only during his meteoric rise in fortunes and politics, but also through his equally spectacular fall once the country abandons the silver standard for gold. She outlived him by some 36 years, in penury, and died in a snowstorm, guarding the defunct silver mine that he had cherished.
It’s quite a story and it makes quite an opera. Torlef Borsting is a powerful Tabor both vocally and in his acting. Except for some weakness in the upper register, Jillian Khuner (the wife of conductor/director Jonathan) sang beautifully as Baby, the role that made the late Beverly Sills and that she made her own. Mezzo Lisa Houston just about stole the show as the imperious Augusta, creating sympathy for the insecure, abandoned wife as well as depicting her as the villain of the piece. John Bischoff had a bravura turn as presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan – Tabor’s last hope for defeating the gold standard. A large chorus, seated at both sides of the stage as if in an opera house, where the action begins, performed beautifully. Elizabeth Wells, Angela Hayes, Elizabeth Gentner and Cary Ann Rosko are lovely as a quartet of Augusta’s society friends, virtuous matrons who “look down their noses” at the upstart Baby Doe. Alexander Taite, Kenny Louis, Michael Beetham and the indispensable Wayne Wong balance things out as Tabor’s cronies. One (or actually quite a few) false note was struck by George Arana in a variety of small parts -- miner, priest, mayor. Arana simply cannot sing. Unfortunately his is the first scene in the opera and it got things off on the wrong foot.
Knight’s projection concept had curtains rise on each scene and a round billboard that set the time and locale, much like the cards in vaudeville show. Behind the curtains you saw mountains, mines, cities and interiors of houses and hotels, depending on what was going on. It was a brilliant way to open up the small Julia Morgan Theater stage to the world of Horace Tabor and his beloved, indomitable Baby Doe.