Lyric’s “Fellow Travelers” offers soaring music and affecting humanity in Chicago premiere

Sun Mar 18, 2018 at 5:46 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jonas Hacker and Joseph Lattanzi in Gregory Spears' "Fellow Travelers," presented by Lyric Unlimited Saturday night at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Jonas Hacker and Joseph Lattanzi in Gregory Spears’ “Fellow Travelers,” presented by Lyric Unlimited Saturday night at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

“It’s more of a love story than I expected,” said one patron at intermission. “I thought it would be more political.”

The searing, destructive politics of the Joseph McCarthy era become more ascendant in Act 2 of Fellow Travelers, the new opera presented by Lyric Unlimited in its Chicago premiere Saturday night at the Athenaeum Theatre. But, as noted, it is a gay love story at its core.

Adapted from Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel of the same name, Fellow Travelers is set in 1950s Washington D.C. at the time of the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his self-serving campaign to root out Communists and other “undesirables”–especially gay men–from the State Department. Against this backdrop of political intrigue, young reporter Timothy Laughlin has a chance meeting with Hawkins Fuller, a State Department employee.

The initially furtive (by necessity for the repressive era) attraction between the conservative Timothy and the older skeptic Hawkins soon becomes a romantic and sexual one. Timothy joins the staff of McCarthy supporter, Senator Charles Potter and is ushered into the capitol’s corridors of power. As McCarthy’s witch-hunting campaign ascends, the politics impact the lovers with Hawkins interrogated (and cleared) of being a homosexual.

Yet Timothy becomes fed up with Hawkins’ licentious ways and breaks off the relationship, enlisting in the Army to escape. Years later he returns to DC; Hawkins is by this time married though he sets up Timothy in a love nest to continue the illicit affair. Ultimately even as Joe McCarthy’s career comes to a crashing downfall, the tale ends with a shattering act of betrayal (made worse by the self-rationalizations to excuse it).

Greg Pierce’s lean libretto for the concise two-hour opera efficiently tells the story, skillfully balancing the political machinations against the story of Timothy and Hawkins’s relationship, from initial meeting to intense love affair, conflict, separation, reunion and ultimate tragic end.

Still, there are less convincing elements. The character of Hawkins’ wife Lucy is a total cypher, existing only as a prop to advance the narrative. How would the reignited love affair of Timothy and Hawkins have adversely affected Hawkins’ wife? Not important, apparently. Also while it can’t be easy to make a well-rounded character out of Joe McCarthy, the opera’s treatment never strays from the cliched caricature of the vulgar, bigoted hypocrite of film and television shows.

More crucially, Hawkins too often comes off as a selfish, swaggering frat-boy jerk. We get that Timothy is sexually attracted to the older, bad-boy cynic; but still, it’s difficult to get engaged by the primary love story when one of the characters is pretty unlikeable.

The most successful element of Fellow Travelers by far is Gregory Spears’ music, which is attractive, compelling and unerringly well crafted. Spears’ music always underscores the drama effectively, with a post-minimalist pulsing rhythm that drives the action forward. The score often soars to surprising romantic heights as in the lovers’ first meeting when the passionate music reflects the intense, burgeoning attraction underneath the mundane surface conversation. Later when a guilt-wracked Hawkins wrestles with his conscience–such as it is–the vocal line becomes almost medieval, taking on a florid, melismatic quality

A first-class cast and largely effective production sealed the success of Saturday night’s local premiere. The Lyric Unlimited performance made manifest an affecting humanity at the center of Fellow Travelers and allowed Spears’ distinctive and rewarding music to make its full impact

As Timothy, Jonas Hacker was simply terrific. The young tenor was fully believable, progressing from an endearingly nerdy naïf to sexual maturity–while wrestling with his Catholic faith and conservative political leanings–and becoming a stronger, more self-possessed figure. Hacker’s slender tenor handled all the demands of Spears’s vocal lines, with ardent singing in Timothy’s  church confession and nailing his top notes in the ensembles with ease.

Joseph Lattanzi created the role of Hawkins Fuller at the 2016 Cincinnati Opera world premiere. Dramatically, Lattanzi fully embodied Hawkins’ worldly cynicism, singing in a strong, well-focused baritone and underlining the character’s cocky attitude and raffish charm, if perhaps not quite enough of his vulnerability.

Also repeating her role from the premiere was Devon Guthrie as Mary, Timothy’s sympathetic friend who warns him of the seedier side of Hawkins’ life. She displayed an ample soprano voice and unleashed ringing top notes in the character’s dramatic peaks.

The ever-reliable baritone Will Liverman proved a strong and incisive presence as McIntyre, an advisor to Senator Potter. Vanessa Becerra was effective as the sneaky office informer Miss Lightfoot. Reginald Smith Jr. made an imposing presence as Senator Potter, as well as tackling the small roles of a general and bartender. Also showing versatility in multiple roles were Marcus DeLoach (as Joe McCarthy, Frank the Estonian and an interrogator) and Sam Handley (priest, technician and party guest). An attractive presence, Amy Kuckelman did what she could with the underwritten part of Lucy.

Kevin Newbury is one of those directors who is more successful with contemporary works than traditional operas–witness his current Faust at Lyric. Newbury’s staging of Fellow Travelers is fluent, efficient and unobtrusive, putting the main characters stage center and gracefully blocking the ensemble scenes. Less convincing was the repeated undressing and coupling of the two lovers; while it underlined their essential physical attraction, the brief but explicit bit of sexual gymnastics seemed gratuitous.

Paul Carey’s buttoned-up 1950s suits and dresses proved richly evocative of the period. Vita Tzykun’s sets were functional and minimalist–file cabinets, park bench, a flag and stone wall–efficiently moved and repositioned by cast members.

Women conductors have been nonexistent at Lyric Opera for far too long, and it’s good to see that absence sort-of rectified with this Lyric Unlimited event. Daniela Candillari led the 16-piece chamber orchestra with a firm hand and sure sense of pacing and flow. Spears’ music soars to an almost cinematic lushness at times, and cries out for larger forces, strings especially. The Slovenian conductor did what she could with the limited numbers, giving lyrical moments expressive point while underlining the brooding atmosphere and ensuring dramatic peaks received full impact.

Fellow Travelers will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 2 p.m. March 25 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport.

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2 Responses to “Lyric’s “Fellow Travelers” offers soaring music and affecting humanity in Chicago premiere”

  1. Posted Mar 23, 2018 at 10:45 pm by Claude Weil

    From my perspective, ‘Fellow Travelers’ is one of the strongest and most compelling works to hit the operatic stage in recent years. The cast was excellent and the staging non-intrusive which couldn’t be said for ‘Faust’ which I left after the second act. I am grateful to Lyric for making FT part of my subscription.

  2. Posted Mar 29, 2018 at 3:20 pm by Richard Boyum

    The sixteen piece orchestra had the deep sounds as a big component of the musicians. There were two trombones, bass clarinet, bass, and two cellos. The low sounds were compelling in the 900+ seat theater. When Timothy sings his first act “aria” kneeling in church after his first night with Hawk, the pure tenor voice of Jonas Hacker was a contrast to the Wagnerian sound in the orchestra seemingly coming from the bowels of the earth.

    Hawk, sung by Joseph Lattanzi, has his “aria” in the second act. I was struggling mightily to place the odd and fascinating sound of the music. On the way home, my companion hit it. He said it was Billy Budd…especially when Billy sings alone and lonely at night.

    Fellow Travelers is a terrific piece and does not easily leave my mind.

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