“Fellow Travelers” explores forbidden love in McCarthy’s shadow at Prototype Festival

Sat Jan 13, 2018 at 11:24 am
X and y in Gregory Spears's "Fellow Travelers" at the Prototype Festival. Photo:

Aaron Blake and Joseph Lattanzi in Gregory Spears’s “Fellow Travelers” at the Prototype Festival. Photo: Jill Steinberg

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Harry Truman’s dictum was never truer than in the years immediately following his presidency, when the capital’s usual stew of ambition and hypocrisy was poisoned further by the inquisitors and informers of McCarthyism.

This was the backdrop for the gripping tale of star-crossed lovers in Fellow Travelers, a newish opera with a colorful score by Gregory Spears, which had its New York premiere Friday night in John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater. Librettist Greg Pierce mined the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon for its intense emotions, with results that were satisfyingly operatic. The original Cincinnati Opera production was re-mounted for this month’s Prototype Festival of new and recent stage works.

Few lovers in the mid-1950s would have been as star-crossed as Timothy the senatorial staffer and Hawkins the State Department employee, embarking on their affair while in the crosshairs of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s relentless hunt for Communists, Soviet spies, and (sadly for the protagonists) homosexuals in government.

Tenor Aaron Blake as Timothy and baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins headed a cast of singing actors who produced high notes but not much in the way of conventional operatic pyrotechnics—with the exception of some splendid ensembles (notably the office Christmas party in Scene 6) and Hawkins’s odd habit of breaking into Monteverdian melismas to emphasize a point.

Spending the whole evening under an emotional microscope, Blake portrayed a likable Timothy; if his playing shyness and hesitancy eventually became more irritating than sympathetic, he sustained the character’s pathos to the end. His agreeable tenor, with a top best described as taut, was up to the task.

Tall and handsome, Lattanzi portrayed Hawkins with a touch of a slouch and a smirk to indicate unreliability, but the reason both women and men fell at the feet of this fellow remained obscure. Singing a character who faked affection while withholding the real thing, Lattanzi’s baritone sounded inhibited and unsatisfying, as maybe it was meant to. 

The couple’s entanglement and eventual unraveling were counterpointed by a rogue’s gallery of Washington types on the make, or in McCarthy’s thrall, or both.

Baritone Paul Scholten was a vocal and physical standout as the shadowy fixer Tommy McIntyre, with a clear English diction that almost made the supertitles unnecessary, presenting an expert embodiment of the fifties American male, for whom standing stiffly with one hand in the pocket of his three-piece suit was the ultimate in casualness.

Sopranos Devon Guthrie and Alexandra Schoeny as Hawkins’s officemates Mary Johnson and Miss Lightfoot seemed mismatched at first, with the genteel Mary’s part written in the bland middle range while Schoeny as the proletarian Miss Lightfoot sashayed about the stage, singing prettily about her gossip magazines, quiz shows and other amusements.

But as the drama went on, it was Miss Lightfoot who disappeared from the action—after literally pointing the “homosexual” finger at Hawkins—while Mary befriended both lovers and was drawn into their dilemma, sharing their travails with ever-increasing vocal heat.

Broad of frame and voice, baritone Vernon Hartman embodied Timothy’s employer, the silver-maned Senator Potter, with gusto, and added a brief turn as a bartender in one scene. 

Baritone Marcus DeLoach performed a hat trick of characterization, trimming his voice and movement to portray a lascivious Estonian diplomat, an icy interrogator of accused homosexuals, and a convincingly blustery impersonation of the real Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Late in the story, soprano Cecilia Violetta López brought vocal charm to the somewhat thankless role of Lucy, Hawkins’s wife-of-convenience. Baritone Christian Pursell made himself useful with brief but clear characterizations of Senator Potter’s office assistant, a bookstore clerk, and the priest who takes Timothy’s confession.

André Previn’s memoir of the 1950s in Hollywood was titled No Minor Chords, and indeed minor chords were hard to find in Spears’s minimalist-influenced score, which dealt in primary harmonic colors and pulsing rhythmic riffs. The music’s relentless perkiness seemed to evoke the cheerful-at-all-costs fifties while providing an ironic backdrop to the plot’s incessant scheming and betrayals.

For all that, the American Composers Orchestra—ably conducted by George Manahan, and made wind-heavy and piano-clattery for this production—proved capable of a wide variety of tone colors, and artfully highlighted the drama’s crucial moments (despite the lack of minor chords).

The production availed itself of, nay reveled in, the current frankness about sex on the opera stage. In fact, in the lovers’ first encounter, the lip-locking, hands-roaming, and eventually clothes-free intertwining went on long after the point had been made.

Far more effective in conveying the meaning of it all was the scene that followed, a monologue in a church by the devout and intensely conflicted Timothy, in which composer and singer made it achingly clear what the character meant when he sang of the sexual event, “Last night I died.” For his efforts, tenor Blake earned the show’s only interruption by applause Friday night.

The contrast of this passionate church scene with the stunned, monotonous monologue of Hawkins near the opera’s close, vowing to get Timothy back, created a telling dramatic parallelism at opposite ends of the tale.

Director Kevin Newbury staged the brief scenes with a minimum of unnecessary movement—except in the church scene, where Timothy’s restless jumping from pew to pew might seem odd in a real church—and moved the singers on and off stage skillfully. Using the cast as stagehands to roll the scenery around also served to remind viewers of their characters’ constant presence in Timothy’s psychic environment.

Scenic designer Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s scenery panels—which became brick walls, filing cabinets and literally the kitchen sink, as needed—recalled her iPhone-shaped moving panels in another Newbury-directed production last summer, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at the Santa Fe Opera.

Other than occasionally using a downstage spot to throw oversize shadows on the back wall, Thomas C. Hase’s lighting design unobtrusively enhanced the action and defined performing spaces as one scene swiftly followed another. 

Costume designer Paul Carey and hair and makeup designer Anne Ford-Coates gave the actors an understated but authentic fifties look, if a little short on lipstick for the ladies. For the use of hats as expressive devices, a triple bill of Jimmy Stewart movies is recommended for the gents. 

Fellow Travelers will be repeated 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 8 p.m. Saturday. prototypefestival.org; 212-532-3101.

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