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L. B. Opera Stages The 'Ballad Of Baby Doe'

May 11, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

The Long Beach Opera has made its reputation--and a very good one, too--as a purveyor of adventure.

On its best nights, the company has either staged long-neglected operas in marvelously unusual ways, or, more startling, it has staged familiar operas in boldly unfamiliar ways.

Friday night at the intimate Center Theater, the company took a safe and perhaps economical step backward. The vehicle was Douglas Moore's "Ballad of Baby Doe," a quaint, easy and eminently stageworthy bit of candy-coated Americana that dates back to the mid-1950s.

Los Angeles knows it as a model of the sort of musical theater that the New York City Opera used to produce so picturesquely. In that context we know it as a grateful vehicle for three extraordinary singing actors. Beverly Sills laid her inimitable claim on the titular flirt with a heart of silver. Walter Cassel made the crusty yet susceptible macho stances of Horace Tabor his own. Frances Bible defined the delicate line between simple pathos and stern self-righteousness as Tabor's spurned wife, Augusta.

An opera blessed with pretty tunes, interesting characters, gushy harmonies, unabashed sentimentality and the comfy historical landmarks of turn-of-the-century mining in the Midwest, "Baby Doe" is almost foolproof. It does contains a lot of padding, however, and a bad deal of simplistic theatricality.

As such, it stands to benefit from imaginative staging--just the thing one would expect Long Beach to provide. No such luck.

The famous New York production used a collection of ancient scrapbook photos--slides projected on the set--to establish a time frame as well as period atmosphere. It was fascinating.

The Long Beach version, directed by Peter Mark Schifter and designed by Michael Devine, avoids all opportunity for innovation and settles for decoration. Schifter moves his characters around the thrust stage and occasionally up and down the aisles efficiently. Devine indicates locales with a few prosaic props and set pieces.

It is all neat, literal and a bit somnolent. A work as uncomplicated as "Baby Doe" might not yield comfortably to violent reinterpretation or psychosexual modernization. Still, the opera doesn't have to be as dull or as predictable as this.

Musically, the production was in good hands. Randall Behr led his crackerjack ensemble through Moore's folksy charades, cloying arias and soapy confrontations with obvious appreciation. Unfortunately, the music-makers once again were consigned to the roof of the set, behind a scrim. Contact with the singers was maintained via closed-circuit television. The system did nothing to hinder cohesion but much to preclude dynamic adjustments.

The orchestra was loud. Luckily, the cast was strong.

Ruth Ann Swenson, ingenue par excellence of the San Francisco Opera, looked appropriately sweet and cuddly as Baby Doe, acted with innate dignity and sang exquisitely--especially when she could float the high pianissimo lines that are the trademark of the role. The cool, glistening purity of her soprano inspired recollections not of the young Sills, but--equally flattering--of the young Hilde Gueden.

Joyce Castle made Augusta a more aggressive force than tradition might dictate. A tall, vital, strikingly attractive woman, she posed a more sensual threat to Baby Doe than had the restrained and severe Frances Bible. Castle's characterization made good sense on its own terms, however, and she sang with commanding poise, opulence and clarity.

Richard Fredricks brought poignancy to the terminal hallucinations of Horace Tabor and capitalized, as always, on a ringing, forthright baritone. In the earlier scenes, he seemed too handsome, too slick, too youthful, ultimately too bland for comfort as the tough, old, cigar-chomping, self-made magnate of Leadville, Colo.

The supporting cast included Geraldine Decker, imposing despite some vocal deterioration as a Mama McCourt who resembled Mme. Schumann-Heink; Michael Gallup, bluff, hearty and sonorous as William Jennings Bryan; and Ken Remo, deft but essentially undifferentiated in four dissimilar character roles.

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