|Jessica E. Jones and Tamara Mumford in The Thirteenth Child|
(photo by Curtis Brown for the Santa Fe Opera)
In terms of audience appreciation, Mother Nature won out over the opera onstage last night at the Santa Fe Opera. Cannon rounds of thunder and jagged bolts of lightning garnered audience applause and cheers that outstripped what we thought was an overly generous show of applause at the end of the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child. Indeed the opera had to be suspended for some time until the show of sound and light abated.
Everything we loved about the prior night’s production (see review below) was missing from this disappointing evening. In fact we enjoyed reading Cori Ellison’s essay in the program book more than the opera itself. The creators of the opera are highly esteemed but failed, in our opinion, to provide an evening of coherent entertainment.
Librettists Becky and David Starobin created an interpretation of a Brothers Grimm fairytale that did more telling than showing. Important scenes were omitted with the intervening action described later by one or another of the characters. The dialogue was awkward and unpoetic, giving the lie to the claims made in the program book. Characters were not fully developed nor did they inspire identification. It was difficult to care about the outcome.
Poul Ruders' music was occasionally interesting in its orchestration but the vocal lines were unmelodic. Real operas have melody even in the recitativi. Here we had dialogue that wasn't even as melodic as sprechstimme.
The opera The Thirteenth Child is an adaptation of a genre of fairytales dealing with personal sacrifice in order to preserve the family. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim posits that fairy tales help children solve existential problems such as oedipal conflict, sibling rivalry, and separation anxiety. Ms. Ellison’s essay described several volumes that categorize fairy tale themes that are universal, having iterations in many different cultures worldwide.
Personally, we love fairy tale operas. We have had no problem caring for Cinderella and identifying with her sibling rivalry; the melodies of Massenet and Rossini just amplify the pleasure. Similarly, we care easily for the siblings of Hansel and Gretel as they deal with parental neglect.; Humperdinck’s music serves to augment and legitimize our caring.
This fairytale, given better treatment, might have affected us in the same way. The story concerns a King (David Leigh) who is turned against his twelve sons by Drokan (Bradley Garvin) , the evil Regent of a neighboring kingdom who lusts after the King’s wife (Tamara Mumford) and crown. Fortunately his pregnant wife delivers a female child named Lyra (Jessica E. Jones). The boys have been banished but, in this opera, we don’t find out until 18 years have passed.
On the mother’s deathbed she tells Lyra about her twelve older brothers and Lyra goes off to find them. They are living in a forest and surviving by hunting. The family reunion is a joyous one until Lyra innocently cuts the red lilies that represent their souls and the young men are transformed into ravens. The dead Queen reappears and tells Lyra that only 7 years of silence will restore her brothers.
Prince Frederic of the neighboring kingdom, of which the evil Drokan is Regent, loves the mute Princess and plans to marry her. Drokan plots to destroy them and seize the crown. The 12 ravens rescue Lyra and the spell is broken. All are returned to human form but the youngest brother Benjamin (Bille Bruley) has been fatally injured in the battle. He has sacrificed his life to restore the family. With all those unfamiliar Medieval names, we wondered about the name “Benjamin”. Like much else, it just didn’t fit.
The dramatic performances were barely adequate, except for the winning portrayal of the youngest brother by Bille Bruley. We cannot comment on the singing due to the awkward libretto and unmusical vocal lines. The chorus of Santa Fe Apprentices sounded fine, as we have come to expect, under Susanne Sheston’s able direction.
Maestro Paul Daniel elicited fine playing from the orchestra and we heard some interesting sounds coming from the percussion section. Was that a celeste we heard?
The set design by Alexander Dodge comprised a post-modern assemblage of geometric forms with staircases leading nowhere. Strangely, there was a Thonet bentwood chair as the sole piece of furniture. Aaron Rhyne’s projections of flying birds brought the Hitchcock film to mind. Projections of greenery onto the set did not a forest make. York Kennedy’s lighting had to compete with Mother Nature’s. Rita Ryack’s costume design was apt, with the royalty dressed, well, royally, and the brothers dressed in garb suitable for woodland hunting. The chorus in the last act were costumed as if in Dialogue of the Carmelites.
The one entertaining moment of the evening occurred when the brothers arrived back to their (invisible) hut demanding types of meat, many of which would be known only to 21st century gourmets.
We don’t know what to say about Darko Tresnjak’s direction, given the libretto. We suppose he did his best to make the story clear. Still, we would have wanted to see more chemistry between the characters.
We believe an opportunity was lost to provide some fairytale magic. The production seemed inert and we were often bored. The tender scene between mother and daughter begged for a lyrical duet. There was none. Must we abandon all hope for 21st c. opera? We keep ourself hoping based upon the incredible success of last year’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs right here at Santa Fe Opera.
© meche kroop