Fellow Travelers is "luminous" in ChicagoReview
Following acclaimed runs in Cincinnati and New York City, Fellow Travelers made its triumphant Chicago premiere this St. Patrick’s Day weekend as part of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited series. Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel about two men’s illicit love affair during the 1950s “lavender scare” receives a luminous operatic adaptation in the hands of composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce.
Though the black-and-white mores of the period blanket the protagonists’ exterior lives, Spears’ music reveals their inner resplendency. Largely through-composed, this score flows seamlessly from scene to scene on a wave of minimalist repeated figures meant to characterize the bureaucratic and societal machinery of life in Washington D.C. – memos are typed, papers shuffled, legislation argued, drinks imbibed, gossip muttered.
Against this backdrop are moments of glorious harmonic splashes that seemingly stop time, like when the lovers first meet: their innocuous chat on a park bench lasts mere minutes, yet the instance of gazing into each other’s eyes is rendered eternal in Spears’ gleaming orchestration. Together with Pierce, the creative duo handled the potentially awkward prosody of American English (including 50s idioms) with supreme craft and artistry. Indeed, to my ears, there wasn’t a vocally ungrateful phrase throughout the two-hour-long piece.
At the heart of the story itself is the clandestine relationship between Hawkins Fuller, a state department official, and Timothy Laughlin, an aspiring reporter newly arrived in D.C. Having created the role of “Hawk” in the opera’s Cincinnati and New York premieres, baritone Joseph Lattanzi seduced the Chicago audience along with his inamorato, Timothy, sung by tenor Jonas Hacker for whom this marks his LOC debut. The chemistry between these two singer-actors in their respective roles was electrifying and irresistible. Your heart soared watching their passion ignite and then sink as their lives and personalities diverged. Timothy is demure and inexperienced when we first meet him, someone clearly struggling with who he is and wants to be and the strictures of his devout Catholicism. Hawk, on the other hand, is debonair and worldly-wise, whose credo is summarized by his line, “It’s a red hot world; let it burn us.”
Timothy is, indeed, set aflame by this first experience of true love and it was beautiful to see him come unapologetically into his own. His big aria-like number in Act 1, “Last night I died,” is set in a church, Timothy on his knees, acknowledging that while he very well may have died in the church’s eyes, from his perspective he was in fact reborn. Hacker delivered this moment of confliction and catharsis with breathtaking conviction and vocal intelligence. He showed himself to be a singer with a real voice – literally and artistically.
Also making marvelous LOC debuts were sopranos Devon Guthrie and Vanessa Becerra singing, respectively, the roles of Mary Johnson and Miss Lightfoot, Hawk’s knowing secretaries in the state department. Mary becomes Timothy’s confidant and shock-absorber when Hawk’s philandering ways prove too much to bear. Like Lattanzi, Guthrie premiered her role to great acclaim. In Chicago she played Mary with an understated intensity and shimmering voice that was rewarded with a thunderous ovation.
At the helm of this production were conductor Daniela Candillari and director Kevin Newbury, still in residency following his visionary new Faust for LOC. Candillari, making her house debut, extracted superb colors from the chamber-sized orchestra and lead with an expert sense of dramatic pacing. Newbury’s skill for tight scenic and narrative counterpoint made the show feel like cinema of the highest order.
There are only three more opportunities to see this important, superbly crafted, and deeply moving opera in Chicago. Don’t miss Fellow Travelers at the Athenaeum Theatre March 21, 23, 25.