Forbidden love in the time of McCarthy

Joseph Lattanzi (Hawkins) and Jonas Hacker (Timothy) in a scene from “Fellow Travelers.” – Todd Rosenberg

Classical Music Critic

What: “Fellow Travelers”
Where: Athenaeum Thåeatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
When: Through Mar. 25

Lyric Unlimited, the outreach and educational branch of Lyric Opera of Chicago, is now presenting “Fellow Travelers,” a new opera based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Mallon. The music by Gregory Spears is a revelation into just how exciting and evocative contemporary opera can sound.

At its heart, “Fellow Travelers” is a simple love story. Tim is a naive young graduate of Fordham, a devout Catholic and a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy. While perched on a Washington, D.C. park bench in 1953, reading through notes he has taken in order to write a newspaper story, he is approached by Hawk, an older, wiser official at the State Department. They begin a doomed love affair which cannot survive the claustrophobic and homophobic environment of the McCarthy era.

Hawk helps Tim get a job with Senator Potter, a McCarthy supporter, and Hawk and Tim become friends and then lovers. The relationship overwhelms Tim, who has trouble reconciling his love for Hawk with his duty to God. The highlight of Part I is Tim’s aria in St. Peter’s Church, where he expresses his unbridled passion for his new love and his confusion over his religious responsibilities.

Tenor Jonas Hacker is superb as Tim, singing with heartfelt simplicity and honesty. While he’s deeply troubled by transgressing the laws of his church, he is less cognizant of his political predicament. You quickly become invested in this character’s life.

Hawk, on the other hand, becomes reckless after passing an interview designed to ascertain if he is, indeed, a homosexual. He proposes a threesome to Tim who is gobsmacked to learn that he alone is not enough to satisfy the man he loves so dearly. Tim joins the army to get away from Hawk.

In the highlight of Part II, Hawk (who is now married) sings of his love for Tim, hoping to re-establish the relationship when Tim returns from Europe. Baritone Joseph Lattanzi (who created the role of Hawk in the 2016 world premiere at Cincinnati Opera) invests this music with masculine bravado as well as passionate longing, although his lowest notes sometimes seem to disappear. It is noteworthy that the most deeply moving musical moments of this opera are when the lovers are alone, each contemplating the other. Spears’s music is lush and gorgeous. It has the best qualities of cinematic music and gleams with aching hope.

Soprano Devon Guthrie is a splendid Mary, assistant to Hawk and a friend to both the lovers. She is grounded, supportive, yet unequipped to survive in the political climate of the 1950s. Guthrie sings with bright sound and offers a committed, caring performance.

The opera contains a large number of small characters, with many singers taking multiple roles. This works mostly well, but some of the characters have no time to establish themselves. Hawk’s wife Lucy is one such character. Hawk seems to believe that he can live both a life married to her and pursue a life with Tim. Would his wife really tolerate that? Why? Nonetheless, Amy Kuckelman offers a pretty portrayal of Lucy.

Reginald Smith, Jr. is Senator Potter (and a few other roles), and offers all the outward graciousness of a seasoned politician. He knows how to use his military service to his political advantage, and is known as “Citizen Canes” because he walks with a pair of canes owing to war wounds.

Will Liverman is the insightful and scheming friend of Potter, Tommy McIntyre. His singing is suave and compelling.

Vanessa Becerra, Marcus DeLoach, and Sam Handley do a good job filling out the cast.

Kevin Newbury directs and Vita Tzykun is the set designer. This pair is also part of the creative team that has made such a mess of Lyric’s main stage production of “Faust.” Yet here, on the smaller stage of the Athenaeum Theatre, they have created a splendid production, one that moves easily through the 16 scenes.

The sets are simple, but clearly establish location. Big, grey panels of filing cabinets and a large American flag denote political offices. These cabinets (on wheels) turn to create a bookcase, a fireplace, brick walls, and other settings. The cast rolls them around and into place in an unobtrusive manner, with scene changes taking place quickly.

Paul Carey’s costumes capture the 1950s, with particularly lovely and colorful dresses for the women.

The real hero of the evening is Gregory Spears. His music is exciting and full of tension and expressiveness. His writing for voice is lyrical and immediate. He describes the music he has written for this opera as combining two very different styles: “American minimalism and the courtly, melismatic singing style of medieval troubadours.” The former represents the political machinations while the latter captures the secret love of Hawk and Tim. It is wonderfully successful.

Daniela Candillari leads the 17-piece ensemble (including piano) which is drawn in large measure from the Lyric Opera Orchestra. For the most part, the sound is shimmering and gorgeous, with Candillari drawing well-coordinated music from the players, but Part II found them experiencing intonation problems more than once.

Librettist Greg Pierce has aimed primarily at natural speech over poetic language, which is a reasonable enough approach. But as opera must tell a story with considerably fewer words than a novel, choice becomes important. Pierce seems to waste a lot of time with pointless verbiage (Timothy sings his own name repeatedly in Part I) so that the actual plot is at times left unclear. Mary’s story in Part II is muddled, the wife’s view of her husband’s secret life is wholly undeveloped, and Senator McCarthy appears briefly, but would have been far more frightening if he had only loomed unseen.

The final betrayal is confusing. Perhaps the motivation is meant is meant to be obscure, but this nonetheless makes the opera less satisfying than it could be.

All and all, this is a powerful and engrossing opera, and even with its faults, one that shouldn’t be missed.