Santa Fe Opera 2019 Performance Reviews

The Thirteenth Child, opera in two acts.  Music by Poul Ruders, libretto by Becky and David Starobin.  World Premiere Performance, Santa Fe Opera, July 27, 2019

            This was an unusual world premiere performance, in that it was possible to be familiar with the music before the performance, since a complete recording was issued five weeks before the opening performance.  But since opera is a visual experience in addition to an aural experience, familiarity with the music did not negate a sense of wonder in the treatment of the action of the story in the theater.  The story is loosely based on The Twelve Princes, in the version of the Grimm brothers, with additions of characters and situations to bring the modern problems of dysfunctional families and mental illness into the picture.

            Musically, Mr. Ruders has become a master of saying a lot with a small number of instrumentalists when the principals were singing.  He never has his orchestra overpower the singers, something that is not always the case in modern opera.  He also uses simple melodies to represent universal themes like a mother’s love or love of country.  But when he has a moment for the orchestra alone and brings in the full strings along with the winds, he can also write a moment that could have been in a move score by Max Steiner or Elmer Bernstein. 

            This is an unusual opera in that there is very little repetition of text, a few words here and there instead of repeating text over and over (think of baroque arias and Mozart’s repetition of text in many of his best-known arias.)  This makes for a number of very short solos rather than the longer arias and duets from seventeenth- through nineteenth-century opera, especially for the men of the cast.  This also works to show the fragmentation of King Hjarne’s mind as he turns against his sons.  The two principal women have more words and deeper thoughts than the men.

             The vocal ranges are unusual, beginning with the first singer in the opera.  King Hjarne’s music may be the lowest major role for a bass in all of opera.  David Leigh had the notes, but the very lowest ones sometimes had a projection problem.  The role is written with high falsetto notes which occur when he begins doubting himself and his sons, doubts which are reinformced with the phrase “Drokan has warned me.”  Drokan (is this name a play on Drakon, or dragon?) is King Hjarne’s cousin and one of the three boyhood friends who swore eternal brotherhood.  The third was the king of the neighboring kingdom and has died.  Drokan is the regent for Prince Fredric.  By the end of the act we find out that Drokan wants the power of a throne and also wants Hjarne’s wife Gertrude.  In this role, Bradley Garvin sings the villain’s pain of not having what his cousins have, an enduring family legacy. 

            Hjarne’s wife Gertrude is sung by mezzo Tamara Mumford.  This is a role which focuses on the lower part of her range.  She understands the importance of the red lilies of Frohagord to the health of the kingdom and her sons, but does not understand what is happening to her husband, who eventually strikes her as she tries to support her children and her current pregnancy against his paranoia.  He makes the decision to kill his twelve sons and make his daughter his heir.

            Eighteen years later, at Hjarne’s funeral, Frederic tells of the thirteen children who have disappeared from Frohagord.   Joshua Dennis as Frederic sees Lyra for the first time and is attracted to her.  He also expresses his frustration with Drokan’s rule with his pretty tenor voice.  Lyra offers to help her mother, who is dying.  The last scene of the act is Gertrude’s death, but she tells Lyra about her brothers and how they are hiding in the forest, unseen for the last 18 years after she warned them to leave Frohagord with the lily bulbs before their father could kill them.  Jessica E. Jones’ lighter voice contrasts well with Tamara Mumford’s darker one.  She begins the second act in the forest, searching for her brothers.  She finds the lilies in bloom and a man who is her brother Benjamin, sung by Bille Bruley.  When she meets her brothers, they decide to celebrate.  She cuts the lilies to decorate the table, and her brothers become ravens.  Gertrude’s ghost (Tamara Mumford with an electronically-changed voice) tells Lyra that to bring her brothers back, she will have to remain mute for seven years, until the lilies bloom that year.

            Seven years later, Frederic tells of finding Lyra, and prepares to marry her.  Drokan, now elderly, determines to kill Frederic and become king of both kingdoms.  Benjamin, now partly human and partly raven, attacks Drokan, who stabs him in the back.  In the fight, Drokan is stabbed and falls into the bonfire where he was attempting to burn Lyra.  Although Benjamin dies, the lilies have bloomed, Lyra and Frederic are to be married, and there is general rejoicing for the future of the united kingdoms.

            The stage action was natural.  The projections were incredible, bringing three-dimensional images on the walls of the unit set.  The swirling patterns while Hjarne is being influenced by Drokan’s warning were wonderful, as were the snakes slithering over the walls as the madness became worse.  The orchestra was led by Paul Daniel in his Santa Fe conducting debut.  The production team deserved their ovations, as did the cast. 

            My overall impressions of this new opera were positive.  It had nice roles, music that was basically tonal and melodic, a story that was recognizable.  The production was interesting and the voices were nice.  But I left wanting a little more.  More what ?  I’m not sure.  I hope to see this again this week and maybe come up with an answer.

Puccini:  La Boheme.  July 29, 2019

            This standard crowd-pleaser was performed in a new production which pleased the audience.  The production used a unit set which, from different directions and with added sections, served as a tiny “garret room away upstairs,” the front of the Café Momus, and the tavern “La Mer Rouge” outside of Paris.  I particularly liked how the set functioned in Act IV, separating the dead Mimi from Rodolfo, and Marcello and Musetta from Schaunard and Colline. 

            There were some unusual stage actions, showing that Rodolfo was aware of Mimi before their meeting in Act I.  In act II, Musetta enters on roller blades and a number of other skaters are in the crowd.  During the fourth-act duet for Rodolfo and Marcello, in which they each remember their lovers, Mimi and Musetta appear on stage as if in memory.  These were directorial choices, one can only presume.  They worked in this production.

            The singing was fine, with some lovely soft singing from the Mimi, Vanessa Vasquez.  Mario Chang as Rodolfo, Zachary Nelson as Marcello, Gabriella Reyes as Musetta, Will Liverman as Colline, and Elliot Paige as Parpignol all sang accurately and with nice voices.  What was missing was the passion of involved lovers, which can make a performance of La Boheme incandescent. 

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