Last Friday, August 23, Opera Fort Collins presented the first offering of its 34th season, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe. The story is one every Colorado resident should know- it was premiered at Central City Opera in 1956 and is loosely based on the true-life story of Horace and Augusta Tabor, his love affair with Baby Doe, and his rise and fall as a silver baron.
Because the story traverses not only the intimate lives of the three protagonists but also the economic and political situation over several years, librettist John LaTouche organized the story in a series of disconnected vignettes. The opening scenes slowly establish the Tabors’ status as the richest family in Leadville, and following Elizabeth “Baby” Doe’s arrival there, the plot quickly moves through the Tabors’ divorce, Horace’s marriage to Baby Doe, and his increasing involvement in state and national politics. Tabor fought ardently to maintain a national silver standard (rather than today’s gold standard), and it is when it considers these political issues that the libretto and the music lose focus. Moore’s music is often lyrically descriptive and at times inspired, but can wander without a destination in mind, particularly in the second act. The best scenes in the opera show a vengeful and moralizing Augusta (played here by Marcia Ragonetti) with her friends and husband, and Moore’s most memorable music is in a handful of the melodious arias composed for Baby Doe herself.
In a small regional house like Opera Fort Collins, the emphasis is on local talent and just enough set dressing, costumes, and the other accouterments one expects from opera to make the story and music come across. In this production, offered a single night only, the ensemble was formed primarily of students from Colorado State University and the University of Northern Colorado, while the three principle characters were local professional singers. This arrangement is a boon both to the company and to the performers: the company can produce an opera without having to shoulder the cost of housing out-of-town singers, and young locals get to perform a chorus or small roles. Here, in this most Coloradoan of operas, this worked well at times, adding a local charm, but the intensity of the drama also suffered occasionally. Director Brian Clay Luedloff does an admirable job of maintaining this company and there is a passionate audience in northern Colorado. In The Ballad of Baby Doe, the noticeable age difference between the college-age ensemble, Ragonetti, and Bradley Thompson, who portrayed Horace Tabor, was awkward at times, and certain ensemble scenes were a bit rough around the edges. Yet, given a limited budget and a tight rehearsal period, the company produced a genuine reading of the work and the audience enjoyed it thoroughly.
Baby Doe was played by young soprano Colleen Jackson, who gradually warmed up into her interpretation of the role as the evening continued. Jackson has a lovely, even light soprano with lustrous high notes, and she was at her best in the Silver Aria (“Gold is a fine thing”), perfectly communicating with conductor Wes Kenney, sounding assured and showing Baby Doe’s assertive yet genteel spirit in this aria devoted to the beauty of silver and Horace’s fidelity to that ore. She was perhaps not as lively and flirtatious at the beginning as one would wish (she sang her motto, “live and let live” rather earnestly), but in the end created a sympathetic and beautiful character. Kenney did a good job of leading the orchestra through this lively score, sounding robust and nuanced at times, but there were moments of miscommunication that gave some scenes a disjointed quality. Ragonetti is recognized as Colorado’s premier singing actress, and as Augusta she bit into the text, showing both the character’s embittered and softer sides. Todd Resseguie impressed with his brief solos as William Jennings Bryan and one of Horace’s cronies.
Such productions and companies represent the wealth and the limitations of local opera companies. Budgetary constraints can lead to greater community involvement, educational initiatives, creativity in programming, and the utilization of great local talent. With larger companies faltering, Colorado definitely needs the perseverance of Opera Fort Collins, Opera Theater of the Rockies, and other small companies. And while flawed as dramatic work, The Ballad of Baby Doe offered this audience a rousing and multifaceted interpretation of its own history and chance to appreciate its local artists.