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Scene from Elektra [Photo by Jen Golay courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera]
08 Jul 2013

Musical Fireworks in Iowa

‘Tis the season for aerial starbursts, and for my money more than a few rockets could be sent up to laud Des Moines Metro Opera.

Musical Fireworks in Iowa

A review by James Sohre

Above: Scene from Elektra

Photos by Jen Golay courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera


Long considered a jewel of the Midwest, the enterprising company seemed determined to break out of regional status with a world-class production of Elektra.

Everything about this Strauss one-acter was first rate, starting and ending with the polished sweep of a firing-on-all-cylinders orchestra that embraced its full partnership in the drama. To document merely a few of their extraordinary moments, witness the unearthly skittering of strings as we awaited the two off-stage executions; the snarling, sneering brass that underscored the characters’ deadly mental instabilities; and especially, the impeccable winds (both in solo and ensemble) performing as knowing commentators in the unfolding plot.

Conductor David Neely shaped the piece superbly and elicited virtuosic playing from his excellent instrumentalists. This was a reading fully invested with the psychological import, musical colors, and emotional content that mark the greatest performances. Maestro Neely carefully balanced this towering achievement in the pit with his sensational cast of vocalists.

If Brenda Harris does not yet ‘own’ the title role, she will. I know of no one singing Elektra today that is performing it this well. Ms. Harris has a full-bodied soprano that ‘speaks’ in all registers and at all volume levels. The top has a laser-beam intensity and pinpoint accuracy that rides the orchestra without strain. Her tossed off comments and bitchy asides were equally present. And owing to her solid technique, Brenda sounds as fresh at the end of the night’s challenges as she was at the start. Today’s ‘Elektra of Choice’ has arrived.

Julie Makerov’s Chrysothemis perfectly complements and contrasts our Elektra, showcasing a perfectly round, warm, youthful tone. Ms. Makerov, too, has a commanding instrument that soars above the band with ease. There are rare moments when she presses a little harder then needed and some releases of sustained high notes thereby go a little wild, but hers was a solid achievement.

Joyce Castle commands the stage as Klytemnästra, deploying a voice with a freshness and poise that belies her age. After forty years, Ms. Castle still boasts one of the finest mezzos in the business, with a reliable upper register of polished bronze that retains its richness all the way down into a well-knit baritonal chest voice. Moreover, Joyce proved yet again that she is a consummate actress as she etched a completely thought out characterization of nuance and depth. Why beat around the bush: I have seen some heavy-hitters take on this pivotal role over the years but Joyce Castle is as fine a Klytemnästra as you will likely ever see.

I urge you to peruse the full cast list carefully since all the Maids and the Overseer were uniformly terrific. Their well-projected and well-matched singing was urgent, edgy, and firmly declamatory. They perfectly established the tone of the piece in the important opening scene. Corey Bix’s frenetic Aegisth was completely drawn and pointedly sung. As Orest, Philip Horst’s potent baritone embodied a steady heroic stature. While all of the small roles were well-taken by DMMO’s Apprentice Artists, David Margulis made an especially fine impression with his clear, pleasing tenor, making the most of his brief turn as the Young Servant.


Set Designer R. Keith Brumley filled the thrust playing space with a huge, jarring, deconstructed face of Agamemnon. The eyes were the windows in which the menacing assassins appear, where Aegisth begs for rescue, and where torchbearers take residence during the Queen’s comings and goings. A nostril-opening at stage level affords a Maid an escape route before she is drug back declaring they are beating her. The vertical crack in the middle of the King’s visage allows prime placement of the main palace door, and the lips decorate a sort of cistern on the passerelle/apron of the space. It is here that the axe is buried.

Barry Steele has devised a lighting plot of great variety and specificity. The use of projections was effective and further supported the unsettling shifts of the story and morphing character relationships. Melanie Taylor Burgess’s character-specific costumes were augmented by Robin L. McGee. Especially telling was Klytemnestra’s removal of her lavish, jewel-encrusted cape and crown to have a girl-to-girl, down-to-earth chat with Elektra.

Director Dugg McDonough imposed great clarity on the proceedings with tight blocking that utilized the entire playing space to fine effect. Mr. McDonough created some excellent stage pictures to boot, like the restless pacing and interaction of the Maids in the opening, and Orest’s re-appearance at the ending, with Chrysothemis hovering above Elektra’s body. All points in between were mounted with the same attention to detail and thoughtful story-telling.

JEN_8246.gifScene from Roméo et Juliette

The season also numbers a perfectly lovely Roméo et Juliette among its accomplishments. Cast from strength, lovingly conducted, and imaginatively staged in evocative sets (adapted from Kansas City Lyric Opera’s production), this was a near ideal combination that made a very strong case for Gounod’s opus.

Sara Gartland’s Juliette was wondrously sung. Her big, responsive, gleaming lyric tone proved to have plenty of ravishing sound for all the big moments, cresting the orchestra with ease. True, like many a Juliette, Ms. Gartland fudged the trills and passage work a bit in the tricky Je veux vivre, but spent the rest of the night inviting comparison to the great interpreters of the part. She scored big with a compelling account of the potion aria, and her deeply felt final scene was the most honestly commnicated passage of the entire piece. And Sara’s lovely, poised presence proved a perfect fit for the young heroine. You will be hearing more from and about this outstanding talent.

Matching her accomplishment was Jason Slayden’s idiomatic, coltish Roméo, characterized by glinting high notes and a beautiful tenor instrument. Mr. Slayden cut a handsome, boyish figure and paired beautifully with his love interest. His singing was imaginative and varied, and his interpretive skills are wide-ranging. That said, while his top is a thing of beauty (especially in tandem with Ms. Gartland), I am not sure it is always freely produced, the price of the intense momentary aural pleasure being a hint of unsteadiness in the descent, and occasional notes that were ‘just’ under the pitch. Still, all told, for musicality, gorgeous singing and dramatic credibility, Des Moines has fielded an impressive pair for their title roles.

Craig Verm’s strapping Mercutio threatened to dominate his every scene, his throbbing baritone powerfully utilized to entertain us mightily with a winning Queen Mab aria. Mr. Verm totally immerses himself in the drama which, when things got heated up in the duel, led to his bullying a high note or two. But this was a memorable role assumption. As Tybalt, tenor Heath Huberg was experiencing some tightness at first, but rapidly warmed up to contribute a propulsive confrontation with Roméo and a touching death scene.

Sarah Larsen’s Stéphano combined good stage presence with a supple mezzo, yielding a stylishly sung and imaginatively acted Que fais-tu, blanche tourtourelle. Tony Dillon brought a plush cushion of a bass-baritone voice to Capulet, although he might at times watch the rhythmic pulse of certain phrases. Jeffrey Tucker’s solid, incisive bass served Frére Laurent well. Kyle Albertson brought our full attention to the brief role of the Duke thanks to his rolling, mellow bass sound. Character mezzo Susan Shafer added immeasurably to the proceedings with her witty traversal of Gertrude. Christopher Scott was effective as a securely voiced Paris.

Once past a slightly scrappy contrapuntal segment in the prelude, conductor Kostis Protopapas settled the assembled orchestral forces for a loving, luminous reading. The Maestro partnered the singers exceedingly well, allowing them to shine, with the all-important duets notable for their spontaneity and meaningful interaction. The choral work was of a high standard indeed, thanks to Chorus Master Lisa Hasson.

R. Keith Brumley has effectively adapted Kansas City’s scenery to this venue’s unique stage, and the simple, attractive components more than met the requirements of all the signature moments. An especial success was having the plinth of the tomb on the apron to start the show with a flash forward of the lovers in lifeless repose upon it, and then to close the evening in real time with the same imagery.

While Barry Steele’s lighting was a complete success, his video projections were less so. With orchestra lights in my eyes, I could not read any but the one or two very largest of the quotes that were projected on the front scrim at the start of scenes. The gorgeous period costumes were coordinated by Robin L. McGee. John de los Santos livened the ballroom scenes with effective choreography that was well executed. And Brian Robertson created some of the best stage combat ever, athletically and cleanly performed by an enthusiastic young cast.

Director Linda Ade Brand created meaningful blocking, and fostered relationships between her players that were believable and inevitable. A minor quibble: Once past the effective, grief-imbued opening ‘flash forward,’ there was not always a fully committed internal life to the proceedings until the first lovers’ duet. This is a challenge of Gounod’s writing, of course, and the overall effect of this sincerely delivered performance was nevertheless remarkably fine.

PG-Photo-Call-4.gifScene from Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes poses its own set of daunting challenges, which were largely met head on by this enterprising company. Since ‘environment’ is so all-important to the tale, let me begin by admiring set designer Brumley’s handsome suggestion of a British fishing village. The huge, steeply raked ‘walk’ that occupied the upstage went from floor level on stage right to what looked like ten feet high on stage left. Damn, it was steep! It was backed by a well-textured sea drop that occasionally lowered to allow for complex expressionistic images to be projected on the cyc above it.

Complementing this were groupings of detailed houses, a church, tavern walls, etc. that were flow in and out as necessary. Grimes’ hut rose out of the apron and a trap door in the hut’s floor enhanced our belief that Apprentice two ‘fell’ to his death. Grimes’ boat also spent some time here, as much an ominous presence as a prop. Mr. Steele once again provided fine lighting effects that were tight, moody, and well-considered. Ms. McGee designed costumes that enhanced and communicated the characters.

I appreciated director Kristine McIntyre’s bold, consistent choices, even as I did not always agree with them. Ms. McIntyre chose to often stylize the movement of the chorus and there is no denying that they executed their assignments with admirable skill and elan. However, having three lines of choristers lock arms around shoulders and rock from side to side like a “sea” of humanity seemed self-conscious. Later, when there was similar synched movement by street revelers, matched by the flown buildings “dancing” in partnership (no kidding), well, the semaphoric gesturing began to less resemble Britten’s opera than say, Jersey Shore: The Musical.

Our director did display considerable success with interaction of the principals, and almost all of them limned effective individualized portrayals. Alas, the one that did not, was the very tragically flawed central personage for whom the opera is named.

From the git-go, Roger Honeywell’s Grimes was too controlled, too ‘normal.’ Instead of suggesting a hint of dementia, or at least an incomplete understanding of the import of his apprentice’s death at sea, Mr. Honeywell seemed genuinely saddened and contrite. In an expository scene that is designed to establish that the judgmental local populace has long had an aversion to this fisherman who is not ‘quite right,’ we were instead wondering how they could not feel sorry for him. An interesting angle, but one that does not ground the drama.

The good news is that the tenor has acquitted himself very well in the vocal department by bending the role’s challenges to his strengths. This includes relishing his ability to hurl out savage top notes with ping and power, but not overusing the effect. Mr. Honeywell, also melds a slightly heavy croon with a weighted emotional delivery that mines a potent effect out of all those pesky repeated tones in the passaggio (damn Peter Pears for having that skill!). And Roger wisely kept his mid-range cleanly conversational and resisted the urge to press the tone. While absolutely focused and consistent in his approach, I would hope that he further develops his understanding of this complex character for I think he could become a memorable Peter Grimes.

Sinéad Mulhern has a warm and full soprano with a generous vibrato that made Ellen more womanly and assertive than is often the case. Her heartfelt, soothingly melismatic Embroidery Aria was one of the evening’s highpoints. Ms. Mulhern was somewhat challenged in her task by the addition of a rather passionate kiss with Peter at the culmination of their opening duet (The truth. . .the pity). If we are thus led to believe that the two may have already had a physical relationship, it does make hash of other ‘usual’ subtext dealing with Grimes’ sexual ambiguity, another reason he is shunned by the town. And it does raise questions about Ellen’s character and motivation that become distractions.


Todd Thomas turned in a marvelous account of Balstrode, his burnished baritone evenly produced and well modulated to the character’s vocal portrait. Susan Shafer was a plucky, plummy Auntie, who knew how to make every salty line count. Sara Ann Mitchell and Dana Pundt were highly effective as Nieces 1 and 2, respectively, and their superbly controlled phrasings in the upper register wove threads of pure silver through the quartet. Corey Bix was suitably blustery as Bob Boles, and Jeffrey Tucker relished his turn as Swallow.

Kathryn Day made a mighty impression as the meddling Mrs. Sedley, and she colored her well-schooled mezzo to fine, insinuating effect. As the Reverend, George Ross Somerville’s characterful tenor provided a nice variety. Talented baritone Craig Verm gifted us with a notably well-sung Ned Keene, confirming my favorable impression in the Gounod that Craig’s star should soon be on the rise.

Ms. Hasson once again worked magic with the choral preparation so critical to the success of this masterpiece. While I cannot say that the young Apprentice group of hopeful soloists fully congealed like a professional opera chorus might after years together working as an ensemble, I certainly applaud their fine achievement.

Maestro Neely was presiding in the pit, and he drew forth a highly charged, yet tightly controlled reading, encompassing all the drama in the score that the staging sometimes missed. DMMO should be justly proud of a festival orchestra that would be the envy of many a major house.

James Sohre

Production and cast information:


Elektra: Brenda Harris; Chrysothemis: Julie Makerov; Klytemnästra: Joyce Castle; Confidante: Emily Holsclaw; Trainbearer: Lindsey Anderson; Young Servant: David Margulis; Old Servant: Brad Baron; Orest: Philip Horst; Tutor: Tony Dillon; Aegisth: Corey Bix; Overseer: Megan Cullen; 1st Maid: Kathryn Day; 2nd Maid: Jill Phillips; 3rd Maid: Sarah Larsen; 4th Maid: Cassie Glaeser; 5th Maid: Rebecca Krynski; Conductor: David Neely; Director: Dugg McDonough; Set Designer: R. Keith Brumley; Costume Designer: Melanie Taylor Burgess, executed by Seattle Opera Costume Shop; Additional Costumes: Robin L. McGee; Lighting and Video Designer: Barry Steele; Make-Up and Hair Designer: Sarah Hatten for Elsen and Associates, Inc.; Choreographer: Eve Summer; Stage Combat Director: Brian Robertson

Roméo et Juliette

Juliette: Sara Gartland; Roméo: Jason Slayden; Frére Laurent: Jeffrey Tucker; Mercutio: Craig Verm; Stéphano: Sarah Larsen; Capulet: Tony Dillon; Tybalt: Heath Huberg; Gertrude: Susan Shafer; The Duke: Kyle Albertson; Paris: Christopher Scott; Grégorio: Kenneth Stavert; Benvolio: Stefan Barner; Frére John: Anthony Udrovich; Conductor: Kostis Protopapas; Director: Linda Ade Brand; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson; Set Designer: R. Keith Brumley (from Lyric Opera of Kansas City); Lighting and Video Designer: Barry Steele; Costumes: A.T. Jones and Sons, Inc., Baltimore; Costume Supervisor: Robin L. McGee; Make-Up and Hair Designer: Sarah Hatten for Elsen and Associates, Inc.; Choreographer: John de los Santos; Stage Combat Director: Brian Robertson

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes: Roger Honeywell; Boy Apprentice: Zachary Koeppen; Ellen Orford: Sinéad Mulhern; Captain Balstrode: Todd Thomas; Auntie: Susan Shafer; Niece 1: Sara Ann Mitchell; Niece 2: Dana Pundt; Bob Boles: Corey Bix; Swallow: Jeffrey Tucker; Mrs. Sedley: Kathryn Day; Rev. Horace Adams: George Ross Somerville; Ned Keene: Craig Verm; Hobson: Kyle Albertson; Dr. Crabbe: Dan Jacobsen; Conductor David Neely; Director: Kristine McIntyre; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson; Set Designer: L. Keith Brumley; Costume Designer: Robin L. McGee; Lighting and Video Designer: Barry Steele; Make-Up and Hair Designer: Sarah Hatten for Elsen and Associates, Inc.

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