|Whitney George, composer/conductor of Princess Maleine (photo by Brian E. Long)|
It was a big gamble for Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble to commission a new opera; the gamble paid off and a stunning new opera was presented as part of the Summer Festival, honoring female composers, conductors, and directors. Billed as a fairy tale, we say otherwise. A fairytale is a folk tale that is handed down from one generation to the next with themes that are consistent from one culture to the next.
Whitney George's new opera has elements of fairy tales--Kings, Queens, a Princess in a tower, a Prince Charming, etc. but it is based upon an 1890's play by Maurice Maeterlinck that was not produced until after his death. The Symbolist movement in literature is difficult to define but, no matter, librettist and director Bea Goodwin has chosen her own take on the story, emphasizing the agency of the female characters. In this she has largely succeeded.
Actually, the most interesting character onstage is Queen Ann of Jutland, portrayed by the fascinating Mr. Liz Bouk whose regal appearance, expressive face and body, and arresting contralto voice lent verisimilitude to the characterization. Queen Ann is the very image of the evil stepmother, but here the character is the evil mother-in-law-to-be. She is a master manipulator, both of King Hjalmar of Ysselmonde, of whom she is the consort, and of her own daughter Princess Ursula (Uglyane in the Maeterlinck). She succeeds in killing the lovely Princess Maleine of Harlingen, a role portrayed beautifully by the lovely light soprano Elyse Kakacek, who looked and sang exactly right.
Bass-baritone Eric Lindsey lent his splendid voice to the role of King Hjalmar of Ysselmonde, a man whose power declines once he destroys the kingdom of his neighbor King Marcellus of Harlingen (portrayed by Jonathan Harris), a man who makes the foolish decision to insist that his unwilling daughter Princess Maleine marry a Burgundian, for political reasons.
The role of King Marcellus' wife Queen Godelive was superbly sung by soprano Kristina Malinauskaite. Her character was portrayed as kind and gentle but she dies along with her husband in the war with King Hjalmar. She reappears as a spirit again in Act II. Neither of the pair provide any support for poor Princess Maleine who has fallen in love with Prince Hjalmar, portrayed by Jeremy Brauner, whose grainy tenor seemed all wrong for the part, the only casting decision that seemed flawed.
Mezzo-soprano Nicholle Bittlingmeyer made a fine Aleta, Lady-in-Waiting to the Princess, accompanying her on her journey. The two of them had a lovely duet in Act I.
Playing The Fool was counter-tenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum whose flexible face, supple body, and eerie tone were just right for the part. Sometimes he commented on the action, sometimes he guided the action, and sometimes he lead the characters astray. But he always entertained.
Tenor Gabriel Hernandez and baritone Connor Lidell had a fine bit together as the Guards Vanox and Stephano. Baritone Shane Brown took the role of Angus, confidant of the Prince. In a confusing costuming decision, the two men who had a similar appearance, with matching bald pates and nearly identical costumes, seemed interchangeable.
We enjoyed the performance of soprano MaKayla McDonald as Queen Ann's daughter--a most reluctant bride for King Hjalmar's son. Her performance was both touching and humorous. The only plot point that was unexplained was how the two had never met since their respective parents ruled together!
The mime show held during the overture involved the petite Megan Vanacore playing the part of Queen Ann's young son flying a kite. The libretto indicated that the kite represented a soul, yearning and aspiring--but held to the ground by the string.
Marcus Hollie portrayed the doctor who concocts poisonous elixirs for the evil Queen.
Stealing the show was a realistic puppet-poodle named Pluto, marvelously manipulated by the aforementioned Jonathan Harris.
There was something particularly special and seemingly authentic about a scene in which the Princess and Aleta escape from the tower and come upon a tavern. The libretto here was more than usually clever and made us think of Sondheim. Jessica Harika and Anna Woiwood were appropriately basse classe. We liked Ms. Goodwin's libretto best when it rhymed and scanned. There were some clever moments indeed!
What about Whitney George's music? Well, dear readers, we have saved the best for last. This was our first exposure to Ms. George's music although we have enjoyed her finely detailed conducting before. Unlike most contemporary compositions, what we heard offered delights aplenty. There was ample variety of styles and colorful orchestration for the 14-member chamber orchestra. Woodwinds and brass were particularly noteworthy, as were the ethereal sounds from the percussionist. Lyrical passages alternated with rhythmic staccato sounds. There were no longueurs; our attention was held throughout. As you may have predicted, we would have preferred more melody in the vocal writing.
There was even a tango, accompaniment to a scene in which Queen Ann tries to seduce the Prince. More credit to choreographer Lauren Hlubny!
Costume Designer Claire Townsend provided lovely gowns for Queen Godelive and the Princess, and a splendiferous one for Queen Ann. The two Kings, whilst a bit more modest, could not be mistaken for commoners. The Prince, however was clad in a rather contemporary suit, as was his buddy Angus. It was difficult to see him as a prince.
Joo Hyun Kim's set was simple but effective with lighting handled by Dante Olivia Smith.
We would like to close by mentioning how much more enjoyable this original work was than the recently reviewed Thirteenth Child and Korngold's The Miracle of Heliane--both failed attempts to create a fairy tale. That is a difficult task to achieve, matching the wisdom of centuries of storytelling. Just think about the success of Cenerentola, Cendrillon, and Hansel und Gretel! Rossini, Massenet and Humperdinck had real fairytales to work with.
If you are tempted to see for yourself, there will be one more performance Saturday night. To tempt you further, we will post a carousel of photos on our Facebook page--Voce di Meche.
(c) meche kroop