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The Ballad of Baby Doe

While The Ballad of Baby Doe may be relatively unknown, it is both dramatically and melodically one of the most memorable American operas in the repetoire, as we see in this stellar Central City Opera production, conducted by Timothy Myers and directed by Ken Cazan.

During the 19th Century, the wild American West captured the world's imagination, with its grandeur, conflict, and promise of riches. One of the most memorable stories from this time is that of the scandalous love affair and meteoric life of Horace Tabor and his second wife, "Baby Doe."

Anna Christy as Baby Doe Tabor
Anna Christy as Baby Doe Tabor
Photo: Amanda Tipton
Tabor (Grant Youngblood) and his first wife, Augusta (Susanne Mentzer), made their way to the Centennial State to seek their fortune, beginning as shopkeepers, the duties for which were mostly handled by Augusta, as Horace prospected and speculated in the mines. After a few go-arounds, one of Horace's investments paid off, initiating Colorado's silver boom.

Tabor continued to speculate, eventually ending up with the Matchless mine, which made him one of the wealthiest men in Colorado, as well as a U.S. Senator, in 1883, the same year he divorced Augusta and married Baby Doe (Anna Christy). In 1893, the Anglo-Euro-American banking cartel had Congress, via bribes and other persuasions, demonitize silver, to prevent the creation of money by those not under their control. Tabor's fortune was decimated and he died shortly thereafter, but not before convincing Baby Doe to hang on to the Matchless. Destitute, she lived at the mine until she died 30 years later.

Grant Youngblood as Horace Tabor and Anna Christy as Baby Doe
Grant Youngblood as Horace Tabor
Anna Christy as Baby Doe
Photo: Amanda Tipton
Beginning with the high D in "Willow Song," when Baby Doe sees Horace outside her hotel, until her soulful final strains as a destitute widow, Christy's soaring soprano imbues Baby Doe's love for Horace with an angelic quality that raises the story's premise from a gold-digger's ambitions and a middle-aged man's identity crisis to that of a transcendent romance.

Given the distance in his marriage to Augusta, it's no wonder that—as his newly acquired wealth opened unlimited options—Horace sought solace in Baby Doe's arms. Youngblood's strong characterization and warm baritone fully inhabit Horace's larger-than-life figure, capturing his bravado and passion.

Susanne Mentzer as Augusta Tabor and ladies of Leadville society
Susanne Mentzer as Augusta Tabor
and ladies of Leadville society
Photo: Amanda Tipton
Mentzer's well-tempered mezzo conveys the nuances of Augusta's conflicted emotions towards Horace, as she deftly navigates the difficult arc of a cold, stern, and unimaginative woman that drives Horace out of the house to the wronged woman for whose "honor" society folk shunned Horace and Baby Doe.

Cazan's staging—at the same site of its world premiere sixty years ago, the company's 138-year old opera house—shines with lovely period constumes (Sara Jean Tosetti), historical photos of the principal characters (David Martin Jacques, with Brian Freeland) and moody lighting (David Martin Jacques). Douglas Moore's melodic score and John Latouche's libretto are brilliant at times, particularly in Baby Doe's "Willow Song" and the "Silver Aria" (which made a star of Beverly Sills in the 1958 New York City Opera production) and Augusta's show stopper, "How can you turn away?," late in the second act.

Central City Opera's presentation of The Ballad of Baby Doe runs through August 6th. For tickets: https://centralcityopera.org/tickets.

Bob Bows



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