‘Baby Doe’ opens Central City Opera season

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Central City Opera | The Ballad of Baby Doe | www.amandatipton.com
Amanda Tipton

Central City Opera (CCO)has a fresh and imaginative remake of an old friend this summer.

Their 60th-anniversary production of Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe — CCO’s signature piece, which the company premiered July 7, 1956 — features a uniformly strong cast and chorus, creative use of projections by designer David Martin Jacques and inspired work by stage director Ken Cazan.

The orchestra, under conductor Timothy Myers, gave a nuanced and supportive performance, responding well to the many moods and styles of Americana in Moore’s effective score. The result was a performance worthy of the company’s great history with this opera.

The projections, which include mountains and snowy forests, the streets of Leadville and Baby Doe’s famous cabin at the Matchless Mine, deserve special notice. In an opera with many changes of scene, they suspended all limitations of the small stage in Central City.

The principal singers and the director were all doing their first Baby Doe, likely one reason for the production’s freshness.

“We’re feeling it as a premiere,” Cazan says.

The choice to tell Baby Doe’s story as a memory piece worked well. A figure of “old Baby Doe,” based on pictures taken near the end of her life, reappeared throughout the production, and screens droped down often revealed the character’s thoughts. This worked especially well because the opera ends with both flashbacks and flashforwards for Horace Tabor, as he dies in Baby Doe’s arms.

Of the lead singers, Anna Christy’s bright soprano was well suited for the sparkly Doe. She was able to float delicious high notes, only occasionally crossing into shrillness. Her “Willow Song” was beautifully effective. Her diction was impeccable, making even such lines as “only the recollection fatal” understandable.

Through warmth of tone and emotional restraint, Suzanne Mentzer made the stern Augusta Tabor an almost sympathetic figure, in spite of the hauteur written into the text. Her final aria, sung alone surrounded by images of Horace, was deeply poignant. It almost stole the show.

Grant Youngblood was outstanding as Horace Tabor. His transformation from the robust lion of Leadville, to a victim of his own overreach and finally to the fading figure at the end was vividly portrayed. He sang expressively throughout, his rock-solid baritone a match for both leading ladies.

In other roles, Sarah Barber was memorable as Mama McCourt. Justin Berkowitz managed the switch from the boisterous Old Silver Miner to the pompous President Chester A. Arthur. The smaller roles — miners and saloon girls, Tabor’s Cronies, Augusta’s Friends, Washington Dandies — were all ably covered.

Most strikingly, the show aims for the human truth behind the operatic characters. The Ballad of Baby Doe is an opera, not a history book, but it grows honestly out of the Colorado ground where it was first presented and continues to thrive.

The summer’s other production in the Central City Opera House will be Puccini’s Tosca, opening Saturday, July 16 and continuing through Aug. 7. Like Baby Doe, Tosca recalls a moment in Central City’s history. In 1932, the Opera House reopened on July 16 with Camille by Alexandre Dumas. That play spawned another famous opera, Verdi’s La Traviata, which has often been produced in Central City, including last season.

Under the direction of CCO debutant Joachim Schamberger, Tosca will feature the remarkable Michael Mayes, remembered for a powerful Central City performance in 2014 as Joseph DeRocher in Dead Man Walking, as the evil Baron DeScarpia. CCO’s music director John Baril will conduct.

What has traditionally been the third slot in the season will be taken by two one-act operas, both performed in English. Mozart’s Impresario, an 18th-century backstage tell-all comedy, will be performed in Central City and at Boulder’s Nomad Playhouse. Later the Same Evening by John Musto, bringing together characters from several well known Edward Hopper paintings, will be performed in Central City and Colorado Springs and, most notably, in the Denver Art Museum.

Taking short operas in English on the road is a considered strategy by CCO and General Director Pelham (Pat) Pearce. They are aiming to attract new audiences to the art form by eliminating four barriers they have identified for new opera-goers: price, language, length and location. In the first two years of this program, Pearce has chosen interesting, accessible works that have broad appeal. The strategy seems to be working: Aiming for 50 percent new ticket buyers, they have achieved 55 percent. CCO is one of Colorado’s oldest and most venerable cultural institutions. It’s ongoing success, important to the community and the state, appears to be in good hands.

To read more from Peter Alexander visit https://sharpsandflatirons.com/

On the Bill: The Ballad of Baby Doe. 2:30 p.m. Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka St., Central City, 303-292-6700. Through Aug. 6. For tickets and a full schedule: centralcityopera.org.