Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Nancy's review of Come from Away
It's easy to fall for Boston Lyric Opera's latest production, the frequently exciting new opera Fellow Travelers, when it's at its most impassioned. With music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Greg Pierce, Fellow Travelers (which originally premiered in 2016 at Cincinnati Opera) adapts Thomas Mannon's 2007 novel of the same name about two men who fall for each other on Capitol Hill in 1953. It's the era when Senator Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare drummed up hysteria of Communists overtaking the government. It was also the era when President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, prohibiting gays and lesbians from working in the government and forcing LGBT employees to keep their private lives quiet as the powers-that-be probed for anyone who seemed like a "sexual deviant."
Pierce, known for his playwriting and musical-theater collaborations with John Kander, keeps his libretto tightly focused on the lead couple. The words they share are economical, even elusive, suggesting something unspoken hovering between them even in their moments alone together. Their first full duet emerges as they begin to make love, and Hawk's mind drifts to traveling to Bermuda, their voices merging in sensuous melisma on the repeated sound of that word. The score beneath is driving but always elegant, carried by a chamber-sized orchestration scored for strings, woodwinds, trombones and piano and capably performed by conductor Emily Senturia and the 17-piece Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra.
BLO's production at the Emerson Paramount Center, with music direction by David Angus and stage direction by Peter Rothstein, is cast with a strong ensemble of singers suited to Spears' score, with its yearning minimalist repetition. (The Robert J. Orchard Stage, I should note, is perfect for smaller operas like this.) Baritone Jesse Blumberg is wonderful as Hawk, a man who seems assured in his own skin yet (as we learn) deeply conflicted about being gay to the point of destructiveness. Blumberg keeps the dramatic stakes high; despite his outward confidence as the easygoing charmer, he plays the restlessness beneath from the outset. He's especially compelling in his second-act aria of denial ("Our very own home"): "I'm not one of those," sung in a melancholy lower register over a deliberate, foreboding ostinato. Not like those other gay men, he means.
Opposite him, tenor Jesse Darden mostly plays Tim's earnestness, with variations on bemused and wide-eyed. But he sings in a lovely and pure tenor, if occasionally too small to carry over the pit, that captures the sweetness of a man opening up to a love he never imagined. Spears also gives Tim his own aria of epiphany ("Last night") in the form of a rhapsodic morning-after confessional, where he moves from asking God for forgiveness to thanking him for finding Hawk: "How many hours last night, how many kisses? I died last night."
In addition to the lush romance, Pierce and Spears' adaptation scores when it peers head-on at the government's antagonism toward homosexuality. Hawk is interrogated at work with crackpot tests designed to sniff out his sexuality: reading a passage from "Of Human Bondage" and repeatedly pronouncing sibilant words like "district." It's an effectively tense, even wryly funny, scene. In fact, there's a lot of humor sprinkled throughout, such as when Tim is questioned about the army (long before "don't ask, don't tell") and replies, winkingly, "I didn't think you'd want me."
The story becomes less assured when the lovers enter a rote series of off-again, on-again complications. Their first real fight feels rushed, as does a subsequent reconciliation, perhaps in an effort to move quickly toward the source novel's climax. And because of the opera's narrow focus, we have few other significant characters to latch onto. Mary Johnson (Chelsea Basler), Hawk's assistant at the State Department, operates more as a sounding board for both men than a fully developed woman in her own right. Most other characters are relegated to bit parts, though Michelle Trainor is a comic and vocal standout as office gossip Miss Lightfoot, a chirpy soprano with something up her sleeve. Senator McCarthy himself also makes an effective cameo, played with oily unctuousness by David McFerrin.
As we are reminded at opera's end, Eisenhower's executive order banning gay men and lesbians wasn't formally revoked until the last days of the Obama administration. Fellow Travelers, at its musical and dramatic heights, reminds us of the enormous cost LGBT citizens faced under this draconian policy, and how precarious our recent hard-fought victories are. At the heart of Spears' music, its insistent ebb and flow, is a sincere urgency: this story isn't over yet.
Fellow Travelers, presented by Boston Lyric Opera, runs through November 17, 2019, at the Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington St., Boston MA. Tickets start at $32 and can be purchased at blo.org, by phone at 617-542-6772, or in person at the Emerson Paramount Center box office.
Cast (in order of vocal appearance):