Note: Space is finite in newspapers, really more finite than ever. This being a new opera, I wrote a bit longer than a usual review, and a little bit longer than the printed page in Saturday’s paper will hold. This posting of our River of Time review contains portions that will not be in the print edition.
No one in Abraham Lincoln’s home state has celebrated the bicentennial of the 16th president’s birth as well as the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.
At the start of the celebration in 2008, the Opera Theatre teamed with the Kentucky Humanities Council to present Our Lincoln, a multi-faceted tribute to the Hodgenville native that eventually traveled to Washington, D.C.
Before that show was even conceived, UK Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey had commissioned an opera about Lincoln from composer Joe Baber and librettist Jim Rodgers.
That opera, River of Time, had its world premiere Thursday night at the Lexington Opera House. It’s not the unqualified success of Our Lincoln, but there is much to like and even potential for Baber’s opera to endure as a portrait of the president before he was presidential.
River of Time’s story takes Lincoln from birth through the death of his first true love, Ann Rutledge. Along the way, he fights with his dad, becomes a bookworm, grieves the deaths of the three most important women in his life and even wrestles.
That story makes for some great moments, including a slave auction in New Orleans where Lincoln declares that if he gets a chance to fight slavery, “I’m gonna hit it hard.” The scene, with a heavy dose of spirituals, is the grand opera spectacle of the show.
But for the most part, this opera strives for a soothing — sometimes too soothing — Midwestern feel, in the spirit of Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. That’s exemplified in a small-town dance scene in which Lincoln and Ann realize that regardless of whether she is engaged to another guy, they are in love.
On Thursday, everything came together for this moment: the chorus work, Tanya Harper’s lighting and the acting by the leads, particularly Amanda Balltrip as Ann. Creating Ann — a role she shares with Julie LaDouceur, who sings it Friday night — gives Balltrip a chance to shine as a total package of the acting singer.
Her aria Poetry and Love Notes, a tricky piece of vocal writing by Baber, is one of three great numbers in this show. (The others are the slave-auction anthem, Glory in the Morning, and Lincoln’s first-act aria, Free.)
Nick Provenzale is easy to root for as Lincoln, with his smooth voice, generous demeanor and all-American good looks. He is saddled, however, with the opera’s primary shortcoming: Lincoln is a directionless character who mopes through the show, constantly crawling to a corner of the stage to read.
By the time Provenzale navigates through his second-act aria, Driftwood, you can see that he has exhausted ways to express “I’m depressed and I don’t know what to do with myself.”
Characterizing Lincoln this way makes for an incongruous aspect to the story. Everyone else in the show goes around talking about how wonderful Lincoln is, so one must wonder: Which is it, sad sack or messiah?
Compounding those problems is that River, in the form presented this weekend, is more a series of vignettes than a story. It never really gets on track, develops characters or engages the audience.
Notice that I said “this weekend.” Rare is the opera, musical or live theater production that is unchanged after its first staging.
Baber and Rodgers will probably look at this production’s performances and evaluate what worked and what didn’t before trying to find future productions of the show.
There also were portions of River of Time that were edited out because of resources and rehearsal-time constraints, including an extended New Orleans market scene and more on Rutledge’s fiance. Assuming they are added back on future performances or a recording, there’s plenty to trim — such as extended expository scenes of Lincoln’s childhood — to help the show maintain its run time of two hours, 15 minutes.
In future productions, more attention should be paid to character development, particularly that of Lincoln. Right now, we see the genesis of his ideas, but the statesman is hard to find.
The UK Opera Theatre cast looked extremely comfortable in this show. In addition to the leads, Christopher Baker as Ann’s father and Mark Elliott Golson II as Billy the Barber are tremendous as some of Lincoln’s guiding lights. Megan McCauley as Nancy Hanks and Dione Johnson as the slave Eliza offer thrilling soprano highlights — there’s gotta be a big role out there for Johnson. (All of those roles are double cast, so different performers will play them Friday night.)
The talk of the show could be actor Henry Layton. As a carnival juggler in Act I and town alpha male Jack Armstrong in Act II, he was in the spotlight whether it was on him or not. Lincoln compares Jack and Samuel Hill (Nick Vannoy) to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and thanks to their performances, the allusion works.
The opera reminds us numerous times that Lincoln loved literature, and he also reportedly loved music and theater. As tributes to the Great Emancipator go, the UK Opera Theatre’s offerings couldn’t be more appropriate.