Gregory Gerbrandt in Glory Denied. Photo by Bill Brymer.
Music and Libretto by Tom Cipullo
Based on a book by Tom Philpott
Directed by Mary Birnbaum
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
I am not going to mince any words here, Glory Denied is a stunning dive into the devastating effects of war on a person and their loved ones.
Colonel Floyd James Thompson, aka Jim, was the longest-held Prisoner of War during the Vietnam War. Nine years in fact. Throughout his captivity, he harnessed his strength from treasuring the love of his family and remembering the letters from his wife Alyce that he had received prior to his capture. He also relied heavily on his faith, finding comfort and assurance in the 23rd Psalm.
When the Army alerts Alyce that Jim’s plane was shot down, her life becomes a spiral of hope and loss. Years go by and despite assurances that her husband will be found, she finds herself believing that he is dead and even goes as far as to ask an attorney to declare him as such. Alyce eventually begins a relationship with Harold and moves her family in with his. Although with Harold she still defends Jim’s legacy, disallowing his name to be recognized, such as on the POW bracelets that were common at the time.
Jim returns home to face all of the changes that had occurred during his ordeal and is overwhelmed with how much is different and unsure how he will cope with it all. He tells Alyce that he wants to reconcile, to which she responds that she actually is now a stronger, independent woman. Jim forgives Alyce. Alyce simply says, “What have I done that calls for forgiveness?”
As Jim stirs frantically in a lonely room, retired from military life and separated from Alyce, he repeats “What to do today” and “One day at a time”, phrases that he commonly repeated when he was imprisoned. Anger builds and he utters, “Everyone else had a bracelet”!
As composer Tom Cipullo notes, this may be the first opera that has been adapted from oral history. Much of the dialogue was drawn from associates of Colonel Thompson. He may be correct in that assumption, as I cannot recall any other opera that has done so. But I disagree that this is a full opera. I’d call Glory Denied operatic theater. It lies somewhere between an operetta, opera, and musical theater.
To be sure the music contained within Glory Denied is complicated and haunting. Using a scant orchestra that sits upstage behind the scenery, the four-person cast moves through endless recitatives that can leave the audience breathless in their ferocity and musicianship. There are sudden changes in time signatures and rhythms, soaring octave leaps, odd syncopations, and pinpoint accuracy on difficult phrasing. This piece absolutely requires musicians of a certain caliber.
The cast is comprised of Older Thompson (Gregory Gerbrandt), Younger Thompson (Alexander Scheuermann), Younger Alyce (played Friday evening by Cree Carrico) and Older Alyce (Murrella Parton). While these are the central roles that each play, there are comprimario type roles that they portray as well. Truthfully, throughout the evening, I was enamored by each person’s performance.
I’ll begin with Cree Carrico, who was replacing Chelsea Miller. While she had a stratospheric top, her lower register was harder to reach. It is within those places that it was the most difficult to understand what was being sung. While that was a little problematic for Ms. Carrico, she was a standout in other ways, such as in her acting and how well she blended with her fellow singers, especially Ms. Parton.
Mr. Scheuermann, who we last saw in Carmen, was a performer’s performer. Tasked with perhaps one of the most physically demanding roles that I have seen in a Kentucky Opera production, Mr. Scheuermann’s portrayal of Younger Thompson was spot on. Having to perform a good amount of time on his knees during the first act as well as having to re-enact Col. Thompson’s torture, Mr. Scheuermann didn’t miss a beat.
Gregory Gerbrandt’s portrayal of Older Thompson was all that I had hoped it would be. His beautiful baritone voice easily flowed through the emotions of the music. He also expressed all the physicality of a man’s spiral into the unknown. His performance of one the few arias of the piece, “Welcome Home” was a feast for the ears and our collective past.
When I first heard Ms. Parton in Kentucky Opera’s The Magic Flute I was piqued by her sound. After hearing her Older Alyce I am even more of a fan of her commanding voice. She evoked thoughtfulness and emotion into her portrayal and when she sang to Older Thompson “After You Hear Me Out”, I wanted more.
The set design by Grace Laubacher was a blend of decrepit military barracks and rough terrain, save for a lush, green patio, stage right, that served as the Thompson homestead, complete with an all-important mailbox. The lighting by Anshuman Bhatia was well thought out featuring warm colors through most of the show. Perhaps my favorite prop of the show was a lovely American flag that dropped from the ceiling that was expertly folded, in the proper way and then placed in a display case.
Mary Birnbaum’s Kentucky Opera directorial debut was with Enemies: A Love Story last year, so she is familiar with our stage. I believe she outdid herself with Glory Denied. While it is not necessarily frantically paced in movements and gestures, she keeps her cast in just the right spots when they need to be.
As I said, this is a stunning piece and appropriate on the eve of Veterans Day. We owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to each and every man and woman who has/or does serve to protect our rights. Glory Denied delves into the sacrifices that one man endured in upholding our liberties. He forfeited his freedom, his marriage, his family, his health and honestly, his mind. Is Glory Denied also a vehicle for exploring a soldier’s PTSD? Perhaps. But what I know for sure is that it is a story that needs to be seen and heard by everyone.
November 8 at 8:00 pm
November 10 at 2:00 pm
The Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.