Anyone alive on November 23, 1963, remembers the nightmarish quality of that day — and the international stigma it attached to Dallas and to the whole state of Texas. Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall, with the premiere of David T. Little’s
Before Saturday night’s premiere, composer Little and librettist Royce Vavrek
While an entirely different sort of beast than Dog Days, JFK is likewise laden with shocking and unexpected images of a president who, for people of my generation (I was in grade school on the day Kennedy died), is lionized as a martyr. After an almost ritualized, oratorio-style opening, the viewer witnesses Kennedy in the bathtub of his room at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, in her slip, administering a shot of morphine to her pain-wracked husband.
This elides into a long sequence in which the audience witnesses the President’s drug-induced hallucinations: Khrushchev, rotund and boastful, threatens nuclear annihilation; Kennedy’s mentally ill sister Rosemary teases and tortures him; and a particularly ludicrous, nightmare version of Lyndon Johnson boasts of the size of his penis and brings a dominatrix into the room.
While the hallucination sequence makes up a large portion of the opera, other elements are equally significant. Just as Shakespeare and Marlowe introduced fictional and supernatural aspects to Elizabethan historical drama, Little and Vavrek introduce a hotel maid and secret service agent who are manifestations of the Greek fates — and of Henry Rathbone
Along with the strong scenes focused on the conjectured hallucinations of John F. Kennedy himself, the most striking and unforgettable moment arrives in the second act when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack
This scene, incidentally, plays out simultaneously on stage with a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce luncheon — a historical event at which, one must suppose, a few members of Saturday night’s audience had been present.
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If all of this seems hopelessly complex, rest assured the drama and ideas flowed seamlessly, thanks not only to a beautifully structured libretto that pulls these ideas together, but a score in which a smooth quasi-minimalism provides a foundation for frequent journeys into radiant neo-romanticism. The constant inventiveness and musical impetus recalls Puccini, while the solid characterizations of both Kennedys evokes the fate-driven personalities of Verdi. And, the several grand choral scenes suggest both of those Italian masters. In terms of the craft of vocal writing, while there are no notably striking vocal fireworks, the writing was uniformly grateful in the best operatic tradition.
This tapestry of fate and larger-than-life characters based on real people played out on a handsome, neon-lit stage, neatly suggesting the intersection of fantasy, dream and historical reality, complete with projected historical film clips. Thaddeus Strassberger
Under the leadership of general director Darren K. Woods
Fortunately, while choosing a theme related to the city’s history, the company leadership, the composer, and the librettist avoided the trap of boosterism or the feel-good side of history, deliberately, in the best operatic tradition, raising questions and probing sore spots, while creating a musical and visual spectacle well worth the attention of any opera lover.