Tom Cipullo’s opera “Glory Denied” opened Saturday in the black-box theater of Arlington’s spiffy new Artisphere, the last of the three contemporary American operas that UrbanArias is offering in the company’s first festival. Based on a book of the same name by Tom Philpott, its subjects are heroism and the moral ambiguities posed by the Vietnam War as embodied in Jim Thompson, the war’s longest-held prisoner, who was captive for nine years, many of them spent in a small bamboo cage, during which time his wife, Alyce, a mother of four, remarried.
Cipullo has dealt with this set of facts by manipulating time and viewpoint. There is an older Jim, who reflects on his experiences some years after his return, and a young Jim undergoing torture and sustained by idealized visions of his pregnant wife. There are also two Alyces — one young, pregnant, hopeful and composing letters to a husband who doesn’t respond; the other much older, remarried, bitter and defensive. Time is fluid. Sometimes the present and the past overlap, and the four singers in this company are eerily convincing as the same two protagonists at different points in their lives.
Baritone Michael Chioldi, the older Jim, had the subtle role in which a small change in timbre and the raising of an eyebrow were all it took to differentiate rejection from resignation; in the intimacy of this performance space, such gestures spoke eloquently. Tenor Kevin Vortmann was compelling and enormously powerful as the young, imprisoned Jim. As the idealized pregnant Alyce of Jim’s imagination, Colleen Daly had the most lyrical assignment and carried it out glowingly. Caroline Worra, tasked with straddling the line between selfish self-preservation and brutal reality, did so magnificently. Her rejection of Jim’s offer of forgiveness (“I don’t give a [expletive] if you forgive me. What have I done that calls for forgiveness?”) is a wrenching jolt but an understandable human reaction nevertheless.
Robert Wood, UrbanArias’s founder and executive and artistic director, conducted a fine eight-person ensemble in a luminous score that offered vivid embodiments of the protagonist’s mental states, and director Scott C. Embler used the space and excellent projections, on the floor and on a large screen behind the stage area, imaginatively.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.