Since "Nixon in China," the 1987 masterwork by John Adams that launched what some wag described as a new genre labeled "CNN Opera," contemporary events have been fairer game than ever for composers and librettists.
The list of newsy operas, which includes Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" and Stewart Wallace's "Harvey Milk," got a little longer with the premiere last weekend of "Camelot Requiem" as part of the Spire Series at First & Franklin Presbyterian Church.
This intriguing and largely persuasive piece about the day of the Kennedy assassination, with text by Caitlin Vincent and music by Joshua Bornfield, received an admirable production from The Figaro Project, a plucky ensemble Vincent founded a few years ago.
Treating iconic figures is a tricky business. The creators of "Camelot Requiem" have approached the people and events of Nov. 22, 1963 with respect for history and an appreciation of poetic license.
The 90-minute, two-act, 10-character piece concentrates on the aftermath of the dreadful event and is set in waiting rooms -- Act 1 at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Act 2 at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In both locales, Mrs. Kennedy, LBJ, Lady Bird, secretaries, and the others try to deal with what has happened, and what must happen next.
Throughout the opera, portions of the Latin Mass for the Dead, given a chant-like setting by Bornfield, are woven into the scenes (Vincent has dubbed the work an "opera-torio"). The requiem references can be quite subtle and affecting, as when a nurse brings water to Jackie while intoning a comforting chant.
By virtue of its relative brevity, "Camelot Requiem" avoids feeling static, even though it is, for the most part, reflective and unhurried. And when things come together strongly in musical and dramatic terms alike, the effect is powerful.
This is especially true of the final minutes, after Bobby Kennedy delivers a rousing anthem about making the country better (a scene that tries a little too hard for grandeur).
At this point, only Jackie is left on the stage and, to some of Bornfield's most sensitive music, she sings the lines from Shakespeare ("...cut him out in little stars...") that Bobby would recite at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The rest of the cast, now in the balcony, intone a hushed Amen.
Other high points of the score include an Act 1 aria -- with a touch of country -- for Lady Bird, musing about how much the public prefers the Kennedys; a melodically and emotionally wide-ranging Act 2 aria for Jackie ("I should have known it was too much to ask to grow old with you"); and, also in Act 2, an Agnus Dei richly harmonized, infused with beautifully crafted counterpoint.
The work, scored for a six-member ensemble of strings, winds, piano and percussion, opens powerfully, too, with clanging keyboard chords and sudden stops that recall how everything so abruptly changed that cloudless day in Dallas. (Those pauses are, in a way, echoed later, when a trio of secretaries read telegrams to Mrs. Kennedy, with repetitions of the word "stop.")
Bornfield flirts with sonic cliche along the way. When Jackie describes the shooting, for example, loud percussion thumps predictably follow (I wonder if something unexpected, such as what Carl Davis achieved in his scoring of the sniper scene in the silent film "The Big Parade," would have been more chilling). And the use of chimes in the orchestration likewise tends to sound obvious.
I also wish the score didn't settle into a rather generic dissonance and angularity so often. The several striking flashes of individuality suggest there are many more where they came from. That said, this is still an impressive achievement, serious and sincere. Bornfield rightly received the loudest ovation opening night.
The Figaro Project assembled a sturdy, Peabody-trained cast for the premiere.
Vincent got deep into character as Jackie (Mary Bova's chilling recreation of the pink suit certainly helped), and sang with a bright tone. Nathan Wyatt excelled as RFK, offering a warm baritone and vividly etched phrasing. Lisa Perry's Lady Bird was likewise finely sung.
The others made uniformly effective contributions to the production, directed by William Schaller. And conductor Blair Skinner guided the performance with a steady hand, drawing polished, expressive playing from the orchestra.
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