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'JFK' is a surreal spin on president's last night in Texas

'JFK' is a surreal spin on president's last night in Texas
The busy production, performed on a revolving set, has the visual spectacle necessary for an opera in which worlds collide. (Karen Almond)

It was raining when President Kennedy woke up here at Hotel Texas the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Hundreds had gathered outside to catch a glimpse of the glamorous young president and his wife. Fortuitously, or so it seemed, the weather cleared. Kennedy went out into the sopping-wet crowd to shake hands. Happy to see the sun, he elected to ride in an open-top car for his motorcade in Dallas that fateful afternoon.

The short stay in Fort Worth has gotten little historical attention, mainly because nothing of note happened. But Saturday, Kennedy's last night on Earth received the full attention of the opera world with the premiere of David T. Little's "JFK" at Bass Performance Hall, three blocks away from the Hotel Texas (now a Hilton).

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Commissioned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Fort Worth Opera and to open its 10th festival emphasizing contemporary American opera, "JFK" (repeated Sunday and May 7) is the most elaborate production in the company's history. The lobby of the grand-scaled, horseshoe-shaped hall was adorned with Kennedy-iana. JFK campaign buttons were handed out and cheerfully pinned onto formal gowns, western jackets and whatnot.

We, of course, have no notion of matters behind closed doors on what appears to have been an average night on a presidential Texas tour. But rather than document, opera's job is to fancify as a means of discovering motivation and meaning. That is exactly the freedom that Little and his librettist Royce Vavrek needed for a work meant to show through phantasmagorical nightmares and prosaic frailties how even real physical and emotional pain beats the alternative.

This might seem a daring project, taking a chance on the first grand opera from a hot composer and librettist team who have worked in more avant-garde circles. The Brooklyn-based Little has a penchant for spicing his works with glints of heavy metal and for exploring emotional extremes. His most celebrated work thus far has been the shockingly cannibalistic operatic collaboration with Vavrek, "Dog Days," which Los Angeles Opera presented last June.

On the other hand (and for reasons maybe only a Texan can explain), this state also happens to have a penchant for broad-minded '60s-era presidential opera. Houston Grand Opera took chances on John Adams' groundbreaking first opera, "Nixon in China," and Michael Daugherty's campy but surprisingly insightful "Jackie O." The Dallas Symphony commissioned Steven Stucky's powerful and stage-worthy dramatic cantata "August 4, 1964," a day in the life of LBJ. On Thursday, Texas State University will premiere Henry Mollicone's latest opera, "Lady Bird."

In some ways, "JFK" is a lot of this put together. An opera operating on many levels, it has something for everyone. While not mythologizing JFK and Jackie as "Nixon in China" does its protagonists, the new opera begins in the world of mythology. Jackie's hotel maid, Clara, and Jack's Secret Service agent, Henry, also represent the ancient Greek Fates, who spin and measure the thread of life. Through them, we enter the drama uneasily aware of the president's destiny.

Along with the Fates, the characters are divided into mortals, apparitions and Texans. As mortals, Jack and Jackie are scrutinized for their vulnerabilities. Rather than a vibrant president, Jack pathetically soaks in the tub to ease his debilitating back pain and requires morphine shots from Jackie.

A depressed first lady mourns the recent loss of their 2-day-old baby, Patrick, and works on her troubled relationship with Jack. In her first aria, "Midnight Is the Loneliest Hour," she is too fearful of dreams to sleep. Meanwhile, Jack passes out into a narcotic fog in which he encounters a series of increasingly surreal visitations: his lobotomized sister, Rosemary; Nikita Khrushchev, with his Red Army, on the moon; a farcical LBJ and other Texas politicians carousing with a riding crop-carrying prostitute.

As the Fates spin and measure, Clara and Henry become a couple who witnessed the assassination of Lincoln. A flashback shows Jack and Jackie's first meeting, a tenderness wanting restoring.

The next morning, Jack and Jackie face the day. They wear their public masks for a breakfast speech. In reflective arias, each begins in his and her private way a process of reconnecting. Jack, in "A Lucky Man," seems on the verge of pulling himself together as he sets out for Dallas.

A lot is tried here. Little's score has flashes of his brilliant, hard-driving percussive style. His music theater is often haunted by ghosts, and some of the most effective moments in "JFK" are found in the otherworldliness of the orchestral colors. Add to that his talent for songful melody and weakness for instrumental shock, and you have a fine cocktail for modern grand opera.

But both he and Vavrek also typically supply excessive sentiment. Were Jack and Jackie really that pathetic? Even the Fates lose it, Henry becoming distraught at having to make the final measurement of JFK's mortal thread. Syrupy, cymbal-crashing climaxes sound like a Broadway producer added his two-cents' worth.

Thaddeus Strassberger's busy, show-businessy production, performed on a revolving set of the hotel room, has a measure of visual spectacle necessary for an opera in which worlds collide. Again offering something entertaining for everyone, Strassberger blithely moves from the bizarre to the real, from melodrama to farce.

All in the cast sing and act strongly. Matthew Worth and Daniela Mack supply none of the larger-than-life magnetism of Jack or Jackie but are believable, instead, as a real-life fraught couple. Cree Carrico and Daniel Okulitch provide the needed flamboyance as Rosemary Kennedy and LBJ, as does Casey Finnigan, the pompousness for Khrushchev. Steven Osgood brings out telling touches from a strong Fort Worth Symphony, although I suspect other telling touches go unheard given how deeply buried the orchestra is in the pit.

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Then again, "JFK" is, itself, worthy buried opera, its troubling essence, the cool turning of fate on the cool president, covered in a deceptive veneer of mawkishness that prevents the assassinated president from becoming more lastingly and eerily Shakespearean.

As for eeriness, not only Shakespeare (the 400th anniversary of his death happened to be Saturday) but also Poe hung over the weekend.

On Sunday afternoon, the company presented two short chamber operas — Jeff Meyer's "Buried Alive" and Patrick Soluri's "Embedded" — that modernized Poe tales. In the first, a paranoid artist's worst fear is realized. In the more imaginative second, inspired by "The Cask of Amontillado," a news anchor, who is being ousted by a younger woman, compellingly reports her death at the hands of terrorists.

Both deaths were operatically, hysterically grisly. That "JFK" avoids that obviousness is its greatest achievement.

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