Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Semiramide at the Rossini Opera Festival

The pleasures (immense) and pain of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide (Venice, 1823). Uncut.

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude) [Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera]
05 Aug 2019

The Thirteenth Child: When She Was Good…

Santa Fe Opera continues its remarkable record for producing World (and American) Premieres with The Thirteenth Child, music by Poul Ruders, libretto by Becky and David Starobin.

The Thirteenth Child: When She Was Good…

A review by James Sohre

Above: Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude)

Photos by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera

 

A co-production with Odense Symphony Orchestra, this new work is alternately entertaining and stirring, with a dose of “frustrating” thrown in. Given its many strengths, this impressed me as a wonderfully promising work in progress, rather than the gripping thriller its promotion seems to wish it already were.

The opera is inspired by a little-known short story by the Brothers Grimm, “The Twelve Brothers .” The ominous plot encompasses a wide-ranging exploration of good versus evil, highlighting power plays and malevolent political machinations. As is often the case, love wins out, but not before some gripping confrontations and melodious musings. More on the story below.

Ruders has described his music for The Thirteenth Child as “ear candy with chili peppers.” In this case, the candy was a tasty enough treat, but the heat factor of the peppers is in the mild to medium range. Given the percussive, aggressively knotty aural universe of Ruders’ acclaimed dystopian opera, The Handmaid’s Tale, I was expecting something a little more prickly here, given the Gothic possibilities of the Grimm source material.

13Child_004.pngBradley Garvin (Drokan) and David Leigh (King Hjarne)

To be sure, there are somewhat atonal brass snaps and snarls as compelling commentary on the emotional subtext of the main characters. And the percussion section got quite a workout, manning an encyclopedic artillery of bombastic effects. But I was most struck by the prevailing melodious, tonal accessibility of much of Ruders’ writing, and the often shimmering string effects, complemented by haunting wind meanderings.

The vocal writing is characterized by uses of extreme tessiture at both ends of the range. Unlike composer Thomas Adès, who revels in sadistically making singers make ugly and/or incomprehensible sounds beyond the limits of their range, Ruders challenges his vocalists but does not plot to defeat them. His use of several falsetto effects for the two bass-baritones was more well-intended than well-realized. The recurring themes, the accommodating orchestrations, the sinuous melody lines, and the exploration of the exhaustively comprehensive uses of the human voice all combine to make for a fascinating listening experience. And what accomplished singers they are.

As Hjarne, King of Frohagord, bass David Leigh unleashed a torrent of dark, pointed snarls that conveyed powerful determination as well as pitiable self-doubt. His dramatic commitment and authoritative deportment commanded the stage. Tamara Mumford expertly co-anchored the first act as Gertrude, Queen of Frohagord. Ms. Mumford’s dusky, hauntingly rich mezzo-soprano and handsome regal bearing made her a perfect complement to her ill-intended consort. Although both singers successfully delivered affecting serpentine phrases in low-lying stretches, they also were capable of thrilling, sizzling outbursts above the staff. For reasons that eluded me, David Leigh, whose King character dies in Act I, returns to perform the miniscule role of Corbin, Eldest Prince in Act II.

This composer especially likes his singing low and dark, and bass-baritone Bradley Garvin revels in his murderous power grab musings as Drokan, Regent of the Kingdom of Hauven. Mr. Garvin is also called upon to limn rangy phrases with simmering wickedness, and his secure instrument rings out potently in the house throughout the range and at all volumes.

13Child_002.pngJessica Jones (Lyra) and Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude)

We have to wait until midway in Act I for the appearance of “the thirteenth child,” aka Lyra, Princess of Frohagord, but the delectable soprano Jessica E. Jones makes it decidedly worth the wait. Ms. Jones’ glistening lyric soprano is possessed of a silvery sheen and a sound technique that results in a limpid, touching vocal presentation.

Frederic, Prince of Hauven is her love interest and tenor Joshua Dennis sings the underdeveloped role with secure, honeyed tone that seems to sweeten the higher it climbs. Mr. Dennis’ voice blends enchantingly with Ms. Jones, making their dulcet duets among the evening’s lyrical highlights.

Apprentice Artist Bille Bruley finds a good match for his exuberant, substantial tenor in the relatively short, though important role of Benjamin, Youngest Prince of Frohagord. Mr. Bruley’s poised singing and likable demeanor, combined with his dramatic commitment made him an audience favorite in what is arguably the opera’s most appealing character. Fellow Apprentice Anthony Ciaramitaro showed off a strong tenor in his brief solo utterances given to the role of Toke, Second Oldest Prince. Chorus Master Susanne Sheston’s ensemble of Apprentice Artists was tutored to a fare thee well.

13Child_003.pngJessica Jones (Lyra) and Bille Bruley (Benjamin)

Although librettists David and Becky Starobin have condensed the fairy tale into manageable chunks, some holes exist in the script that seem to beg that we have filled in those blanks by having read the synopsis very thoroughly. The story in brief:

King Hjarne of Frohagord has 12 sons and has been led to believe that all of them wish him ill. His wife Gertrude is pregnant, and he tells her that if she bears a girl he will kill all the boys and let the daughter alone inherit his throne. To save them, Gertrude sends the boys out into the forest that night and gives them the magical red lilies that protect Frohagord to ensure their safety.

Flash forward 18 years: The King has died, the Queen is critically ill, and their daughter the Princess Lyra has grown to be a young lady. Frederic, a prince from a neighboring kingdom, is interested in her hand but the evil regent, Drokan, wants her for himself. Lyra tends to her dying mother who gives her 12 shirts she made for the boys and as her dying wish, sends the daughter off to look for them.

The Princess does indeed find her grown up brothers and to decorate the celebratory dinner table feast, she assembles a bouquet by cutting 12 flowers, not realizing they are the magic lilies that protected the boys. Her act unintentionally transforms her brothers into ravens (no kidding). Her mother’s spirit mysteriously appears to tell Lyra that she can redeem herself by staying mute for seven years.

Flash forward another 6 years: Frederic (remember Frederic?) finds the silent Lyra and still wants to marry her. But Drokan (remember Drokan?) still wants her too and tries to burn her on a bonfire. After Evil gets vanquished by Good in a brief struggle, all ends (mostly) happily. There is no question that there are great possibilities inherent in this fantastical tale, and many of them were successfully exploited. But there are a couple of dramatic and musical holes and transitions that I would urge the prodigiously talented creators to consider.

In an apparent effort to keep the piece lean and mean, the immediate acceptance of Princess Lyra by her brothers was a “huh?” moment. The men supposedly have a festering resentment of the sister they never met, since her birth caused their banishment, to the point that they commit to killing her should they ever meet her.

She encounters Benjamin first, and once he knows who she is, they immediately bond as besties. When the other brothers approach, Ben says he has to hide her or they will make good on their vow to kill her. About a page and a half later, he decides to reveal her, and the other brothers immediately accept her with no further mention of their avowed revenge.

Another leap of faith is the transformation of the boys into ravens. Only Benjamin appears on the fringes of the set with a big black wing attached to his left arm (only) that tries to show “I’m a bird now. . .get it? “The rest of the aviary is communicated in a swarming projection, one of many excellent effects by projection designer Aaron Rhyne that greatly enhanced the narrative.

The finale is the portion that needs the most redevelopment. A great tragedy befalls at the end, shaking Lyra to her core. In what should be a transition of eventual acceptance that life still must go on, and happiness can still be found, we get instead a rather abrupt dramatic shrug, a few bars of “stuff happens” sentiments, and a really unexpected flourish of a wrap up that was startlingly blunt in its brevity.

The Escher-like set certainly is a thing of atmospheric beauty. It is as though we are lying on the stone floor of an ancient castle looking up the tower in a forced perspective that ends upstage with a filigreed roof that allows us the view of the spectacular sunset beyond. Two long staircases, perhaps to nowhere, flank the structure stage left and right.

Complementing Mr. Rhyne’s masterful projections, York Kennedy has contributed a largely effective, brooding lighting design. Rita Ryack’s diverse costume design runs the fantasy gamut from humble peasants to picture book perfect royal lovebirds, to villainously regal powerbrokers. Ms. Ryack has greatly assisted in conveying the essence of each character, most especially with her lavish, layered attire for Queen Gertrude.

Darko Tresnjak directed the proceedings with a competent hand, although the stage pictures were often predictable, and characters did not always interact with each other as meaningfully as they might have. At a number of key junctures, soloists were singing to the back wall of the balcony rather than the person on stage they were addressing.

Too, there were a few underwhelming moments that could have been more imaginatively realized. The lighting of a (supposed) menacing pyre, the climactic (clumsily performed) swordfight that results in two deaths, the aforementioned (meant to be) ominous bird transformation, all seemed to go for less than they should have. Label them “opportunities missed.”

Saving the very best for last, the top notch SFO orchestra was in sublime form all evening long. Paul Daniel was in firm command of his forces and they responded with playing that was by turns luminous, wrenching, ethereal, chilling, and always dripping with theatrical fervor. Maestro Daniel made as impressive a case as possible for Mr. Ruders’ unique sound palette.

It is tricky to give a new work legs and highly laudable that Santa Fe Opera continues to champion these world premieres. There was so much to enjoy in this first run of The Thirteenth Child, that I hope its creators continue to develop it into the fully-realized, engrossing work it might become.

James Sohre


The Thirteenth Child
Music by Poul Ruders
Libretto by Becky and David Starobin

Hjarne, King of Frohagord: David Leigh; Drokan, Regent of the Kingdom of Hauven: Bradley Garvin; Gertrude, Queen of Frohagord: Tamara Mumford; Frederic, Prince of Hauven: Joshua Dennis; Lyra, Princess of Frohagord: Jessica E. Jones; Benjamin, Youngest Prince of Frohagord: Bille Bruley; Corbin, Eldest Prince: David Leigh; Toke, Second Oldest Prince: Anthony Ciaramitaro; Conductor: Paul Daniel; Director: Darko Tresnjak; Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Rita Ryack; Lighting Design: York Kennedy: Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):