Opera News September, 2002

"In Review"

Serendipity was the order of the evening of June 4, at the last of nine performances in the world-premiere run of Nightingale: The Last Days of James Forrestal. This two-act opera, with music by Evan Hause and libretto by Gary Heidt, needs and deserves improvement at several points, but already it has the makings of an engrossing music-drama.

Serendipity: what else can you call it when you find this history-based tragedy -- more psychological than fashionably political -- in the tiny Present Company Theatorium (!), one block south of East Houston Street (SoHo), as produced by the composer and the Museum of Sound Recording?

The bare-bones history is plain and cruel. In 1949, at President Truman's request, Forrestal resigned as the country's first Secretary of Defense, showed signs of a mental breakdown and was committed to Bethesda Naval Hospital. Fifty days later, he jumped or fell to his death from a sixteenth-floor pantry window that was somehow unbarred. But the opera's title suggests a lot more. "Nightingale" is the name Forrestal gave to a mistress, Pauline Davis, heiress to the Morton Salt fortune, who headed the American Red Cross during World War II. Military conscience also weighs down the title. During the war, Forrestal instigated Operation Nightingale to help Ukrainians try to separate from the Soviet Union, an enterprise that wound up helping the Nazis invade the U.S.S.R. Further, the opera's emotional climax depicts Forrestal's copying out a great mourning chorus from Sophocles's Ajax, cutting off at the invocation of a lamenting nightingale.

Hause, whose teachers included the Williams Bolcom and Albright, has evidently learned from them that a conservative, tonal idiom can be fresh and dramatic. Thus his score, presently for thirteen singers and ten instrumentalists but expandable in other circumstances, rises to the drama's strongest moments. In fact, the overture is a simple solo for the bass-lute-like Ukrainian bandura, played movingly here by Michael Andrec. There are acute differences in vocal attack between Pauline and Forrestal's harder-edged wife. And the final chorus, based on the Ajax lament, is the opera's melodic and harmonic summit. Words and music dip, however, into forced jollity and hollow parody in scenes devoted to several politicos, not least a smarmy Lyndon Johnson and a wormy Truman. That's where cutting and rethinking should start.

Hause conducted tidily, and Philippe Bodin, himself a composer and former singer, directed for emotional power when parody didn't lead him astray. Salvatore Basile as Forrestal was the rightful center of the performance. His voice is a rather gruff Broadway baritone, but it put the words across clearly, and he acted the long role with tireless concentration. Mezzo Vielka Kelly offered a nicely mysterious Pauline-Nightingale, and Kari Swenson Riely, Danielle Musick and Margarita Desyatnik lent special glow to the chorus in the Sophocles lament.