In the recent past, Boston Lyric Opera enthusiastically made the best of its floating situation. By presenting compelling opera in nontraditional venues such as a college gymnasium and an immersive fairgrounds installation, the company has garnered critical praise and, it would seem, attracted a curious new audience. The gay romantic tragedy “Fellow Travelers” represents BLO’s first show this calendar year in a conventional auditorium, the Robert J. Orchard Stage at the Emerson Paramount Center. With it, the company’s winning streak has faded out.
It would be disingenuous to characterize BLO’s successes in experimental staging as distractions, but at their best they did distract from a longstanding issue. New England’s premier professional opera company does not have a vocal-friendly stage to sing on, much less call its own, and that is already a serious setback. With manifold production issues diminishing the strong points of “Fellow Travelers,” the story and score’s own weaknesses were more readily on display.
“Fellow Travelers” (composed by Gregory Spears, libretto by Greg Pierce) has been making the rounds of smaller American opera companies ever since its 2016 world premiere in Cincinnati. Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon, the backdrop of “Fellow Travelers” is the Lavender Scare, the McCarthy-era crusade against gays and lesbians in federal employment that cost approximately 5,000 people their jobs. In today’s political climate, where being gay or trans can still get you fired in many states, the opera readily resonates outside its historical-fiction context.
Our two lovers meet-cute on a Washington, D.C., park bench — Hawkins (“Hawk”) Fuller (baritone Jesse Blumberg), a worldly and callous picture of Brylcreemed manspreading masculinity; and Timothy Laughlin (tenor Jesse Darden), an Irish-Catholic babyface in thick glasses, a new boy in town so innocent that his drink of choice is milk.
Hawk treats his promiscuous gay assignations as a sweet escape from his public life, of a rising State Department career and (eventually) a wife and a house in the suburbs. Conversely, Hawk may call Timothy a “tiger cub,” but there’s nothing wild or libertine about the young man, who dreams of fairy-tale monogamy, with a brick house and matching towels. His devotion to his Holy Father easily maps onto a dreamy Daddy. This can’t end well, and it doesn’t. Through Hawk’s elite machinations, Tim is handed his longed-for ticket into a Capitol Hill job, a sexual awakening and first love, and ultimately an act of selfish betrayal that upends it all, which landed Hawk near the top of my list of opera men I’d most like to punch in the face.
Minimalist influence leaves its mark all over Spears’s score, which churns forward with the inexorable energy of a hostile bureaucratic machine (albeit one with too many repetitions of phrase and text) when played confidently. Wednesday night, however, wasn’t it. The small pit orchestra conducted by Emily Senturia sounded downright anemic, with violins and flute often out of tune. The defined rhythmic pulse the score desperately needs was absent.
It seemed like something more serious than opening-night jitters was afoot, be that insufficient preparation, acoustic troubles, or a combination of the two. With that shaky orchestral foundation, ensemble scenes shambled, and the interrogation scene lacked all bite. Stage directed by Peter Rothstein, characters rarely ventured toward the front of the stage, and their voices were often lost under the orchestra.
The cast, however, was a stunner, full of familiar faces. Veterans of several BLO productions apiece, Blumberg and Darden inhabited their characters with poignant depth, and their scenes of clandestine intimacy vibrated with arresting chemistry and tension. The sets were imported from the Minnesota Opera; Sara Brown’s semicircle of stark gray columns simultaneously evoked imposing rotundas and prison bars, dwarfing every player — still, Blumberg’s matter-of-factly smoky voice, easy confidence, and perfectly cut dark suit combined to give Hawk an air of belonging among them. The baritone’s early music bona fides provided powerful grounding for his second-act soliloquy, a mournful troubadour song.
That moment was only outclassed by the one-two punch of the first love scene between the two then immediately followed by a melting solo from Darden’s Timothy the next morning in church, kneeling and trembling at the fertile crossroads of religious and carnal ecstasy, pride and guilt.
As Mary Johnson, Hawk’s assistant, soprano Chelsea Basler produced dramatic coloratura cartwheels, which never failed to sound incongruous with the character’s practical mind-set. (That’s not on her.) She and Vincent Turregano, as a background political player, were the only voices that consistently rose above the orchestra when it was louder than mezzo-forte.
The cast was filled out by Michelle Trainor as a nosy, blowsy secretary; James Maddalena, Simon Dyer, and David McFerrin as a host of characters each (special kudos to wig & makeup designer Liz Printz for transforming the handsome McFerrin into a slimy interrogator and a hunched Sen. McCarthy). Current BLO emerging artist Brianna J. Robinson went above and beyond as Lucy, Hawk’s unwitting beard. With the trappings of nuclear family life cradled in her tender soprano voice, a role that could have been a bland cipher became its own tragedy within a tragedy.
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Emerson Paramount Center. Through Nov. 17. www.blo.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.