JFK Opera: Figaro Project’s Camelot Requiem casts somber light on New Frontier - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

JFK Opera: Figaro Project’s Camelot Requiem casts somber light on New Frontier

No single event so scarred the collective psyche of the sixties generation as did the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  The shocking images of the president’s last moments, as his motorcade slowly moved through Dealey Plaza, remain as indelibly etched as does the crestfallen countenance of his dazed young widow in her bloodstained dress.

Setting an opera in the immediate aftermath of one of the most studied events in American history is an intriguing but risky idea.  Not only is the story well known, but so are the principal players who, like the fallen president, continue to live through the black and white images of shaky home movies and television.

 Those pictured (from left): Lisa Perry as Lady Bird Johnson, Nathan Wyatt as Bobby Kennedy, Alex Rosen as Lyndon B. Johnson, Caitlin Vincent as Jackie Kennedy, and Stephen Campbell as Reverend Oscar L. Huber.  (Britt Olsen-Ecker.)

Those pictured (from left): Lisa Perry as Lady Bird Johnson, Nathan Wyatt as Bobby Kennedy, Alex Rosen as Lyndon B. Johnson, Caitlin Vincent as Jackie Kennedy, and Stephen Campbell as Reverend Oscar L. Huber. (Britt Olsen-Ecker.)

Camelot Requiem, an original opera commissioned by Baltimore’s Figaro Project, tells the story of Jackie Kennedy and the small group who surrounded her in the wake of her husband’s death.  Composed by Joshua Bornfield with a libretto by Caitlin Vincent, Camelot Requiem is drawn from the well documented history along with familiar facets of the traditional requiem mass.

The first act opens at the Parkland Hospital with the administration of the last rites.  After what seems like an eternity, the scene then shifts to the waiting room area and the awkward necessity of the transfer of presidential power to Lyndon B. Johnson.  In the second act, the action moves from Dallas to the Bethesda Naval Hospital.  Once there, the reality of their forever changed world begins to sink in.  The ensemble has witnessed the abrupt end of Camelot.

The cast of Camelot Requiem featured librettist Caitlin Vincent as Jackie Kennedy, Nathan Wyatt as Bobby Kennedy, Alex Rosen as Lyndon Johnson and Lisa Perry as Lady Bird.

A number of  upsetting lines punctuate the libretto as the players try to sort out the unfolding nightmare.  Fortunately, this company is replete with beautiful voices which made following the heart wrenching story a palatable experience.  Best of all, there were no wasted movements or unnecessary stage business in this production.  These are gifted singers who can also act.

Soprano Vincent flawlessly carried the lion’s share of the show, sending stratospheric notes into the air as if they were actual cries to heaven.  Equally impressive were the demanding measures Vincent purposefully choked back when she, as Jackie says, “I keep waiting for someone to say it isn’t true.”

As Lady Bird Johnson, soprano Lisa Perry had the formidable task of playing opposite Alex Rosen as the larger than life Lyndon Johnson.  Perry’s most moving musical moment comes in the midst of the swearing in of LBJ when she reminds her husband, “They don’t want us. They want him. They want her.”

The Lowenherz Collection of Kennedy Photographs, Friedheim Library, Archives and Special Collections, Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University; Orlando Suero, photographer.

The Lowenherz Collection of Kennedy Photographs, Friedheim Library, Archives and Special Collections, Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University; Orlando Suero, photographer.

Baritone Nathan Wyatt’s Bobby Kennedy, though not as prominent as some of the other characters, offered a pleasing return to earth from the highs of the sopranos in the cast.

Leslie Procter portrayed Kennedy’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln and was joined in the secretarial pool by Melissa Wimbish and Jessica Hanel Satava.  This Greek chorus enveloped the second act, first by evincing their repressed feelings for John F. Kennedy, with each one eventually saying, “They’ll never know how much I loved him”; and then by showering the still numb Jackie with dozens of sympathy telegrams.

Stephen Campbell, Jeremy Hirsch and Kate Jackman rounded out the commanding ensemble.

While all of the singers were wonderful, the one true stand-out in the cast was bass-baritone Alex Rosen.  Admittedly, bringing deep, resounding tones to the character of Lyndon Johnson at first struck this reviewer as something of a disconnect.  Johnson, after all, was a man who was known mockingly by his detractors as Uncle Cornpone.  Yet, Johnson was a powerful man – certainly not one to be trifled with – and Rosen’s voice adds weight to a character who is now carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The sanctuary of the First & Franklin Street Presbyterian Church, with its vaulted ceiling and delicate lighting, made for a beautiful and appropriate setting.  It also allowed the singers plenty of room to soar.  A modest six-piece orchestra, under the baton of Blair Skinner, provided an adept accompaniment while negotiating what may best be described as a grueling score.

Those familiar with the requiems of Mozart, Berlioz and even the uber Protestant Brahms, could find the music of Camelot Requiem something of a challenge.  English is not the most lyrical of languages, so it is up to the composer to craft a score which will draw the audience in.  Though solidly grounded in technique, this piece was hard to follow.  The opening moments were decidedly labored and, although the kyrie was nicely done, I found myself straining thru-out the opera to catch a few memorable bars.  In the end, I felt as though I had heard a proficient requiem, just not a very moving one.  But kudos to the company for taking a risk and, in the process, bringing Baltimore audiences an ensemble of rising stars.

The Figaro Project presented Camelot Requiem as part of the Spire Series at the First & Franklin Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon district.  This was the final performance of the company’s 2013 season.

Founded in June 2009 with the goal of promoting local artists and presenting opera in innovative and affordable ways, productions by The Figaro Project alternate between new adaptations of traditional repertoire, and world-premieres of contemporary operas.    More information about The Figaro Project, including a list of past productions, may be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 





About the author

Anthony C. Hayes

Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at the Washington Herald, and Voice of Baltimore, Tony's poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!, SmartCEO, Magic Octopus Magazine, Destination Maryland, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. Contact the author.
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