|Anna Noggle, Sara Beth Pearson and Justin Ryan
Most of us grew up with the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty which began as a tale handed down orally for a very long time before being recorded by a succession of chroniclers, with Perrault and Grimm being the most well-known. It is the Grimm version that Disney used for his classical telling of the tale which is sufficiently "grimm" without Perrault's references to cannibalism and child murder.
As a ballet, the story succeeds brilliantly with an entire act being devoted to the celebration of Aurora's marriage to The Prince and entertainment being provided by various characters from children's literature. To the best of our knowledge, there has been no operatic treatment....until now when wunderkind Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg undertook to compose an opera meant for families with children.
We have been fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of the work which the young Mr. W. began composing at the age of eleven. His creativity has not gone unrecognized. Indeed the work won a 2014 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award and the Charlotte V. Bergen Scholarship prize. He is this year's National Young Arts Foundation Merit winner in Classical Music Composition. He has won the affection and support of the Chelsea Opera as well. We have heard him sing and play piano brilliantly but we sadly missed his conducting debut at age 11 at the Crested Butte Colorado Music Festival.
Last night we heard the entire work performed onstage at the York Theater with Mr. W. conducting from the piano. Against a painted backdrop of what appears to be Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a stellar cast brought the work to life. All that remains is for Mr. W. to finish orchestrating the second act; we wouldn't miss that for the world.
This young artist shares our goal of bringing young people to the opera so they can come to love it as much as he clearly does. The love emanates from his shining face and enthusiastic body language.
The score is impressive; it is melodic and accessible without being derivative. In the overture and the prelude to the second act, he makes use of heraldic themes which likely will be orchestrated for brass. The melody literally jumps when the frog, winningly portrayed by Nicole DeLuca, announces an upcoming pregnancy to the Queen (Sara Beth Pearson) who has a lovely aria with much melismatic singing. And there is a finely written duet with the King (Justin Ryan) involving some lovely harmonies.
He has also written a wonderful aria for Rosamond the Princess (Kate Oberjat) who can trill with the best of them. Interestingly, her bel canto vocal line was supported by some pretty energetic and jazzy writing in the piano as she wishes for her prince to come. Happily, her diction sufficed to make the words understood, even at the top of her register.
There is a drinking song in a tavern in Act II in which Mr. W. showed his skill in complex choral writing. In the forest scene there is a fine hunting chorus and a gorgeous aria for the Prince. Dominic Armstrong made a handsome and vocally firm Prince. There were some light moments of swordplay of sorts as the Prince fought first with an Old Man who tries to prevent him from tackling the bramble covered castle and then an hysterical sword fight with the Evil Wise Woman, his nemesis.
These two opponents wound up being our favorite characters of the evening. The Old Man was sung by baritone John Hancock whose diction was remarkable. His aria was a recapitulation of the story up until that time and served to compensate for some not so perfect diction in Act I.
And who was that making the Evil Wise Woman the evilest wise woman ever seen and heard??? None other than star soprano Lauren Flanigan who used every vocal and dramatic asset at her disposal to avenge her being left out of the christening party. (You see, the royal couple possessed only a dozen place settings so she got left out.)
Soprano Anna Noggle created the role of the Last Wise Woman (the good fairy) and used her voice and dramatic skills well to create a beneficent character that did what she could to protect Rosamund from the death spell and to guide the Prince to her chamber. Her scene competing with Ms. Flanigan for control of the Prince's sword was hilarious.
There are lots of predictions in the story. The Frog predicts the pregnancy; the Evil Wise Woman predicts the spindle accident; the Last Wise Woman predicts the Big Sleep. And now we would like to make a prediction. Benjamin Perry Wenzelberg has a great future in store. We can't wait to witness it.
(c) meche kroop