Little did Central City Opera realize, when it commissioned this locally inspired piece in 1956, that it would become an American classic. The reasons for its popularity are eminently clear in this 50th-anniversary production: The story’s chronology is oriented around the life of Horace Tabor, “the Silver King” — who struck it rich at his Matchless Mine in Leadville, Colo. — but his love affair with Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt (“Baby”) Doe, an attractive divorcee, and the scandal that followed (he was married) are the heart of the drama.
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, Joanna Mongiardo’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 a transcendent romance.
It’s no wonder that — even as his newly acquired wealth opened unlimited options — Horace sought solace and found bliss in Baby Doe’s arms. Robert Orth’s irrepressible characterization and strong baritone fully expresses the larger-than-life figure, capturing his bravado and dashing manner.
Joyce Castle’s well-tempered mezzo conveys Augusta’s conflicted emotions toward her straying husband as she deftly navigates the high wire between the battle ax who drives Horace out of the house and the wronged woman for whose sake society shunned Horace and Baby Doe.
Director Michael Ehrman’s production — staged at the site of its world premiere a half-century ago, the company’s 128-year-old opera house — sparkles with costumes created by Ann Piano for his 2000 Utah Opera version and 11 extravagant sets designed by Michael Anania for CCO’s 1996 revival.
Douglas Moore’s music and John Latouche’s libretto are brilliant at times, particularly in “Willow Song” and the “Silver Aria” (which made a star of Beverly Sills in the 1958 New York City Opera production) and Augusta’s showstopper “How can Can You Turn Away?” late in the second act.
At other times the music and libretto are merely functional, serving the story’s biographical and historical exigencies.
The Tabors lived extravagantly, constructing a slew of public buildings in Leadville and throwing lavish parties from Denver to Washington, D.C., not to mention the regal jewelry that adorned Baby Doe. But with the demonetization of silver in 1893, they lost everything except the Matchless Mine, where Baby Doe was found frozen to death in a shack in 1935.
Ehrman’s intelligent direction and conductor John Moriarty’s experienced baton bring home the grand sweep of this riches-to-rags epic.