Composer Victoria Bond's "Mrs. President" opened at the Discovery Theatre on Friday night, and the audience seemed a little surprised to find itself liking the contemporary opera as much as it did. The music, while modern, is not at all abrasive and, in fact, finds room for agreeable melodic gestures. The plot, drawn from a fascinating episode of American history, raises socio-political issues that remain resonant. The principal singers are all superb.
The semi-staged Anchorage Opera production counts as a world premiere in that it was the first full performance of the score with orchestra. Bond conducted the players on stage while the key characters moved and acted in 1870s costumes at the front of the stage, which was festooned with patriotic bunting (as was the lobby). A large chorus stood on risers at the back of the stage; my main complaint with the evening was that the voices seemed muffled, even when heard from a seat near the front of the house.
After an orchestral prelude, the drama begins with Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States, being displayed as a child clairvoyant at a carnival in the town of Homer -- the one in Ohio, not the hamlet on the edge of Kachemak Bay. In a sort of synopsis, the adult Woodhull, sung by Valerie Bernhardt, recounts her childhood, and the three key men in the show admit both their admiration for her and their reasons for failing to assist her when she needed them.
Woodhull was an abolitionist, woman's rights advocate, publisher and financier. She ran for president in 1872, a generation before women could vote. She famously locked horns with the prominent preacher Henry Ward Beecher, sung by Scott Ramsay, who roundly denounced her promotion of free love though he himself indulged in extramarital dalliances.
Beecher is first seen leading his flock in decrying slavery. When his sister, Isabella, sung by Katrina Thurman, expresses her admiration for Woodhull -- whom she knows from seance sessions -- he admonishes her to avoid the seductress of "innocent minds like yours." But when he confronts Woodhull, sparks fly and they tumble into a carnal embrace as the first act curtain falls.
In the second act, Woodhull is announcing her candidacy at a rally. Joseph Treat -- an amalgam of her myriad lovers, sung by Kirk Dougherty -- derails the event by calling her "Mrs. Satan." Beecher shows up and repeats the epithet. She's arrested and jailed. Friendless and penniless, she has a vision of the future of a "paradise" where all races, classes and sexes are equal.
Structurally, "Mrs. President" feels more like a cantata than an opera. Hilary Bell's script springs from episode to episode; performers generally declaim their observations rather than arriving at them through dialogue. The downside of this approach is that it cuts out character development; the upside -- and it's a big one -- is that the piece rolls through like a locomotive. The thing ran two hours with intermission without lagging.
Musically, Bond borders on neo-romanticism without ever becoming sweet. The most tender moment comes as Woodhull's husband -- sung by Robert Osborne, whose gorgeous bass was particularly welcome in a show full of female singers -- dreams of a less controversial life on a farm. This leads to a quartet with four conflicted characters repeating the refrain, "If you loved me..." followed by their individual and incompatible demands.
Perhaps the most stirring section comes in the first act as Woodhull announces her vision of equality as shown to her by the spirits and raises the great question, "Why not a presidentess?"
The first act also had strong ensembles, as in Treat declaring his love while Woodhull's seance partners pleaded for word from loved ones from beyond and Beecher's congregation in revival mood in counterpoint with parishioner, Elizabeth Tilton, apparently carrying Beecher's child, soaringly sung by Rebecca Cloudy of Kodiak.
Much of the intervening score has a boisterous tone, set at the start when Woodhull's mother, sung by Joy Hermalyn, beats the drum to draw a crowd for her daughter who is "wise as Solomon." Bond writes well for the voice, and the voices repaid her with excellent long and high notes.
Stage director Lemuel Wade was somewhat limited in what he could do, given the format of the production. There was some chuckling when the two main singers gave way to lust, and a row of silent contemporary women at the finale, apparently symbolizing the future, might have been done more imaginatively with greater effect. But he still managed to supply a sense of action and physicality as the music unfolded. Sentries in Union soldier uniforms at the doors of the theater nicely set the flavor of the period.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Alaska Dispatch Publishing