Union Avenue Opera’s 25th season has been a study in contrasts, from a sprawling opening production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” to Puccini’s beloved “La bohème,” to a very different closer, Tom Cipullo’s 2007 “Glory Denied,” in its St. Louis premiere.
“Glory,” with just 14 musicians — four singers, nine instrumentalists and a conductor — is based on the true story of U.S. Army Special Forces Col. Floyd James “Jim” Thompson. Thompson, captured in 1964 and not released until 1973, was America’s longest-held prisoner of war, enduring monstrous torture at the hands of the Viet Cong.
At home his wife, Alyce, dealt with four young children and her fears. She behaved badly, moving in with another man and attempting to have Thompson declared dead. She refused to allow his name to be used in any way, not even on the popular P.O.W. bracelets worn by millions at the time.
Cipullo, who was present for opening night, based his libretto on Tom Philpott’s book of the same name. He double-cast both of the Thompsons, to allow for their younger and older versions. Young Thompson is a tenor, while Old Thompson is a baritone; Young Alyce is a higher, lighter soprano than Old Alyce.
They frequently overlap, trade phrases and finish one another’s thoughts in the complex, mostly melodic score. It’s an effective way of demonstrating their intimate connections.
The performances here are all first-rate. Because of the way the opera is written, Peter Kendall Clark’s Old Thompson and Gina Galati’s Old Alyce dominate vocally and dramatically, but Karina Brazas’ Young Alyce and David Walton’s Young Thompson are equally well-cast.
Clark, here in his UAO debut, has previously sung this role. He projects a physicality that helps build the character. His rant on finding himself in a very different America from the one he left brings together a fine string of tropes from the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s one of the strongest moments in the opera, with some of Cipullo’s most effective writing.
Galati is certainly familiar to St. Louis audiences, but usually while playing romantic heroines. With Old Alyce she demonstrates a welcome new dimension, performing a thoroughly unsympathetic role with strength and power, unrepentant of her bad deeds to the end.
Walton portrays Young Thompson’s sufferings with physical strength to go with his clear vocal beauty. Brazas gets to portray Young Alyce in a more sympathetic mode than her older counterpart; she and Walton match well vocally.
Opera is full of tragedy, of course, but it’s seldom as grim as this; the opera concludes with Thompson’s 1977 attempt at suicide. Dean Anthony’s staging was abstract, but always made it clear what was going on. Roger Spiedel’s spare, simple set used minimal stage furnishings, growing more cluttered — with papers and footlockers — as the performance continued. Costume designer Teresa Doggett used matching dress uniforms for the men and classic shirtwaist dresses for the women in the second act, downplaying the singers’ physical differences.
In the pit, UAO artistic director Scott Schoonover kept things moving and together. “Glory Denied” is something quite different for the company; as hard as it was to watch at some points, it’s very much worth doing.