Bodhi Tree Concerts Gives Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘Autumn Valentine’ a Bravura San Diego Debut

Is there an American singer who does not love the vocal music of Ricky Ian Gordon? From art song to music theater to opera, this acclaimed composer has created a richly varied and probing repertory of engaging songs set to the crème de la crème of poets and writers. Gordon’s truly catholic taste in poetry runs from James Agee and Langston Hughes to John Ashbery, from Emily Dickinson to Sylvia Plath—not to mention his own lithe, sparkling texts.

Angelina Réaux & Michael Sokol [photo (c.) Esteban Marin]

For Gordon’s chamber opera Autumn Valentine, commissioned and premiered by the Opera Omaha Fall Festival 1992, he chose the prose and poetry of Dorothy Parker. Her snappy epigrams and wordplay are simply nonpareil; e.g., “You can bring a horticulture—but you can’t make her think!” Of course, this epigram must be spoken with a sly smile and arched eyebrow to make its point.

But unlike the poetry of, say, Emily Dickinson, the literary canon of Dorothy Parker—urbane, arch, and unrelentingly cynical—has not appealed to many serious composers. Gordon stepped in where angels feared to tread. In Autumn Valentine, Gordon’s collage of spoken verses and a baker’s dozen of poems by Parker—as well as two songs set to his own poetry—journeys the audience along the fated course of a fragile marriage of a man and woman that appears to be on the brink of disaster from the first spat after their wedding ceremony.

The man is, all too typically, primarily concerned about carrying out his military and work-related responsibilities, and the woman’s emotional needs are the only items that register on her radar. For example, when the man makes a flattering remark about the appearance of a member of the woman’s bridal party, she treats the comment with the umbrage of learning about a six-month clandestine affair.

Saturday at the Bodhi Tree Concerts production of Autumn Valentine at UCSD Park & Market, baritone Michael Sokol and soprano Angelina Réaux, the singers who premiered the work in Omaha, returned to Gordon’s work, bringing vocal prowess and considerable nuance to their roles. Not surprisingly, the baritone role settled into the strongest and most focused range of Sokol’s commanding voice, and considering the modest emotional scope of the role, he still found an array of colors and dynamic shadings that gave his character laudable credibility. Réaux’s characterization of the high maintenance woman did indeed totter on the oppressive edge of high maintenance pressure on the audience. Although  her articulate phrasing graced Gordon’s supple lines, the slight quaver in her soprano undermined the youthful persona of the woman at the beginning of the journey.

Ken Herman & Ricky Ian Gordon at pre-performance interview [photo (c.) Esteban Marin]

The insightful, inventive stage direction of Rosina Reynolds and the spirited, driving musical direction from pianist Ines Irwati ensured the dramatic success of this relentlessly monothematic work, and the production nestled quite comfortably in Park & Market’s theater space.

Gordon’s shimmering melodies and the inventive sparkle of his ingratiating instrumental accompaniment–an effusive piano part embellished by six other instrumentalists that both supports the singers and develops the drama’s emotional trajectory–carried the evening. His fresh, agile vocal lines convey the text with steadfast clarity as well as trenchant insight, and his combination of crunchy harmonic language with elastic musical textures fuses and tempers the best of two musical worlds: the hard edge of the post WW II musical avant-garde with the ingratiating fluidity of the more recent minimalists.

This version of Autumn Valentine, which was embellished for the San Diego production, lasted an hour and forty minutes without an intermission. I should confess that my patience with this fraught marital adventure gave out some fifteen minutes before the final curtain. Reflecting on the work’s somber denouement, I concluded that Dorothy Parker’s own experience with divorce suggests she found a silver lining in marital failure. Although she divorced her first husband, stock broker Edwin Pond Parker II in 1928, she kept his patrician last name. And while she divorced her second husband, the actor Alan Campbell, in 1947 after thirteen years of marriage, she chose to remarry him in 1950 to spend another thirteen years together until his demise in 1963.

Bodhi Tree Concerts produced Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Autumn Valentine” at UCSD Park & Market on Saturday, September 23, 2023.

Leave a Comment