GREAT BARRINGTON — In 1973, U.S. Army Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held POW in American history, returned home after nine years in captivity in Vietnam, to a country he no longer recognized. Attitudes towards war and women’s societal roles had changed. Thinking him dead, his wife, Alyce and family had moved on.
Berkshire Opera Festival tells Thompson’s dramatic, traumatic story in a new fully-staged production of Tom Cipullo’s opera "Glory Denied," with a nine-piece orchestra, at Great Barrington’s Daniel Arts Center. Performances are 7:30 p.m., Thursday, July 22, and 1 p.m., Saturday, July 24.
Cipullo, a Guggenheim Fellow, based the 2007 work on journalist Tom Philpott’s book, "Glory Denied: The Vietnam Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War."
In the two-act intermission-less opera, four singers portray younger and older versions of Thompson and Alyce.
Festival alum, tenor John Riesen plays Younger Jim. Soprano Maria Valdes — Gilda in the festival's 2018 "Rigoletto "— is Younger Alyce.
New Music champion Caroline Worra sings Older Alyce, her fifth time in the role. She recorded the opera in 2013.
“Modern opera is my favorite thing to do,” she said during rehearsal. “I get to bring my own strengths, to create something.”
While the opera’s everyday speech patterns are “challenging, rhythmically very difficult,” sensitive orchestration lets Worra “bring it down to our smallest level” and, during dramatic moments, “send it all the way to the back of the hall.”
Prolific Grammy-winning international baritone and festival newcomer Daniel Belcher finds playing Older Jim “daunting in every way — vocally, physically, mentally, emotionally.”
The score, agrees conductor Geoffrey Larson, is “demanding but very rewarding … very deeply thought out. Character development is phenomenal.”
“There’s tremendous detail, incredible highs and lows of emotion,” Larson added. Some moments are harrowing; others show “aching, unforgettable beauty.”
Using Jim and Alyce’s own words, the English libretto lets audiences develop “an immediate connection.”
In his fourth season as assistant conductor and chorus master, "Glory Denied" marks Larson’s podium debut at the festival.
Also making her festival debut is stage director Sarah Meyers, a longtime Metropolitan Opera directing staff colleague of festival cofounder Jonathon Loy, who works across the U.S. and internationally.
The ensemble opera, she said is “essentially four monodramas going on simultaneously.”
With each singer positioned alone on separate platforms under a slanting roofline, her insular staging reflects pandemic reality.
“It’s a story about isolation,” she said. “With COVID, we’re very aware of our distance from one another.”
"Glory Denied" represents Berkshire Opera Festival's return to live performance, and first "second stage" presentation since launching in 2016.
“We are not only reopening but also expanding,” said Brian Garman, artistic director and cofounder. “When we founded the company, adding a second production was always part of our plan.”
Additionally, as an American company, “we have an obligation to present and be proud of American opera,” he noted.
"Glory Denied," Garman said, is “one of the finest American operas written in the past 20 years.”
“It’s a subject matter many of our audience lived through. This story is so engrossing, and the music so accessible and immediate, it would be very difficult to leave the theater and not feel affected," he said.