Opera Fairbanks did a heck of a job with the premiere of "The Color of Gold," performed March 14-16 at the Centennial Theatre in Pioneer Park. With music by Emerson Eads and libretto by Cassandra Tilly, two long-established Alaskans, the three-act work arguably the first opera to be entirely written by Alaskans that has actually been staged.
Eads, who conducted the precise, well-rehearsed orchestra of Fairbanks talent, has written a rich and sweeping score with several star-turn arias for soloists and some excellent choral writing. It's a commendable compositional effort that was matched by an exemplary performance from mostly local singers.
Among the men, Sylvain Demers stood out as a crooked banker who took some glee in his addiction to corruption. Among the male roles, he seemed to have the music that best fit his voice. As a preacher, David Miller's strong bass was most effective in the ensembles. Patrick Miller, as a young settler, had a fine solo aria in the second act, but elsewhere sounded insecure in his top notes. In the smaller but recurring part of a miner, Resty Yongco was consistently persuasive.
The leading female roles, Jamie-Rose Guarrine as the settler's wife and MaryCatherine Moroney as the tender-hearted saloon madame, were beautifully sung with true pitch and smart breath control. One can say something similar about the other women, saloon girls Amy Horstman Ingram, Anna Polum and Kirsten Hutchinson.
Small, but also well-done, parts went to Morgan Reed as a miner and fifth grader Sydney Edwards as the child of the settler couple.
Director Cindy C. Oxberry went with straightforward stage action and used a minimal yet remarkably effective set. Visually and musically it was as fine a show as I've seen anywhere in the state for some time.
Theatrically, it was a different story. "Gold," intended to dramatize the founding of Fairbanks, lacks drama. It's a series of tableaux in which we never see any characters evolve or change.
For example, the bad banker is bad at the start and at the end, when he's led off without explanation by a marshal who materializes more or less out of nowhere to bring justice to the lawless mining camp. Admittedly, he's probably done something that deserves jail. But what? We're left to guess at the specifics, which could have been communicated in 12 bars of singing rather than implied with 50 measures of pantomime. The accused has the right to hear the charges against him; so does the audience.
More baffling, he's led off silently, losing a wonderful operatic opportunity to excoriate his accusers, justify himself, or maybe reflect on his actions and attitudes in a way that teaches us something. Small wonder that when Demers took his bow the standing crowd booed; not that they didn't think he'd sung well, but because his stock villain character was in the tradition of 'mellerdrammer' where booing the villain is the customary audience response.
Other characters suffered from similar two-dimensionality. The one glimpse of a soul capable of change came from the saloon madame, whose aria helped explain why she had sympathy for the priggish settler's wife.
A number of scenes, while picturesque, did nothing to advance the action. Perhaps the most gripping part of the show was a funeral in Act Two. It began with the preacher and chorus intoning a somber setting of the "Our Father" followed by the miner and saloon madame singing an "Ave Maria" in counterpoint to a tweaking of "Amazing Grace" sung by the settler's wife. It made for an outstanding musical effect — but it wasn't opera. Such prayers and hymns, on stage as in life, are events in which time stands still. Eads' setting created a moving mood, but not a moving image.
There are several stirring mass ensembles, just about the whole first act is one such ensemble. But again, an opera chorus typically stamps out a mood but seldom shifts it. Happily, the Opera Fairbanks chorus was in superb form to do justice to the music. Their big opening and closing scenes could stand alone as concert pieces, perhaps mixed with some of the arias as a kind of cantata.
For the sake of the choruses alone, I'd gladly hear "Color of Gold" again. It would be interesting to see the response in Anchorage or elsewhere to a concert of some of the choral and solo numbers along with the beautiful overture. Alaskans in general would probably find the whole show entertaining.
But to climb into the tiny repertoire of operas that survive like pre-owned Mercedeses, the script needs to be honed into a more stage-worthy vehicle that the engine of the compelling music can power out of the parking lot.
By MIKE DUNHAM