At Minnesota Opera, “The Shining” dazzles

World premiere of Paul Moravec’s opera promises future success

By Peter Alexander

The Saturday (May 7) premiere of The Shining by Paul Moravec at the Minnesota Opera was clear evidence of the vigor of contemporary opera in America.

13173843_10153765505072979_4910527002593047546_n

The Shining by Paul Moravec. All photos by Ken Howard for the Minnesota Opera

The opera, based on the Stephen King novel (but resolutely not on the Stanley Kubrick film), has sold out its opening run of four performances. It is a solid piece of work, dramatically effective, musically successful, and destined to be popular. And in the hands of the team from the Minnesota Opera—conductor Michael Christie, stage director Eric Simonson, scenery and properties designer Erhard Rom, the craftsmen of 59 Productions and their many colleagues—The Shining received a stunning production that realized the full potential of the score. The cast was uniformly first rate. At the end, the sold-out Ordway Music Theater audience stood and cheered.

13151477_10153761432822979_8358473026070436581_n

Brian Mulligan as Jack Torrance, with the massive boiler

If you don’t know the story, Jack Torrance, a writer, has taken a job as winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel (loosely inspired by Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel), a seemingly elegant relic that turns out to be haunted. Jack brings his wife, Wendy, and young son, Danny, with him. Jack and Wendy are hoping to restore their damaged marriage, but under the sway of the hotel and its ghosts, the already fragile Jack turns violent.

Librettist Mark Campbell has done an effective job of reducing King’s 400+ page novel into a two-hour opera. The essential elements of King’s tale are present: the evil spirits that control the hotel, the temperamental boiler that threatens to blow the place to bits, the smothering snow that creates a barrier from rescue, the child with second sight (or the “shining” of the work’s title), and his hair-triggered father’s troubling past. It’s a lot to get into a compact libretto, but Campbell has managed to keep the spirit of the original while necessarily cutting some elements (including several of the haunted rooms, the topiary animals standing guard and the malevolent wasps).

13179410_10153765506357979_1954666156422704678_n

Alejandro Vega as Danny and Brian Mulligan as Jack

There is one significant change that King’s fans will notice, and it is not an improvement. At the end of the novel, Danny confronts his father fearlessly, because he knows something that Jack has forgotten: the boiler, which is close to blowing. When Danny reminds him of this, Jack rushes to the basement, leaving only enough time for the three survivors to escape. In other words, the Overlook has completely taken over Jack, who becomes a tragic figure brought down by his own weakness.

13151382_10153761433622979_8768870567870682339_n

Brian Mulligan as Jack, surrounded by evil spirits just before the boiler destroys the Overlook Hotel

In the opera, Jack allows Danny to go, and when the hotel’s spirits remind him of the boiler, he defies them and decides not to relieve the built-up pressure so that his family can escape. When he chooses to die in the resultant explosion, the story becomes a more conventional one of Jack’s redemption, a point made clear in the staging. In King’s bleaker vision, there is no such redemption.

Moravec has set this tale with accessible, expressive music. The text can be clearly understood, thanks to both composer and cast, and supertitles are often not needed. There are moments of affecting lyrical beauty, particularly the moving (if predictable) final aria by Halloran, the resort’s cook and the story’s rescuer, who reassures Danny that “You’re doing fine by yourself . . . Just fine.” Other major characters—Jack, Wendy, and the spectral figure of Jack’s brutal father—all have expressive music. If the ghostly chorus of evil spirits sounds a little too real, that is a consequence of portraying incorporeal beings with corporeal actors.

13178017_10153765506462979_5945586431432079112_n

The exploding Overlook Hotel

The horror genre is of course a well worked musical field, through opera and especially film. It is probably inevitable that Moravec incorporated some familiar clichés to represent menace, the sinister noises of malevolent spirits, ghostly voices and the ratcheting up of suspense, but it is a testament to his skill as a composer that these clichés are elevated by his score.

The orchestral writing is especially outstanding. The orchestra supports but never obscures the vocal lines. Sounds from the orchestra fit the text and mood, and the final powerful cataclysm is one of the most effective moments of musical pictorialism I can recall. That orchestral explosion and the subsequent relaxation into the comfortable and comforting music of the final scene make a satisfying ending.

13124956_10153765506557979_586500643969602035_n

Kelly Kaduce, Arthur Woodley and Alejandro Vega in the final scene

Minnesota Opera’s production is a dazzling tour de force. The beautiful projections that place the actors on a mountain road and beside a peaceful lake are impressive enough, but even more impressive are the scenes in the hotel, with a combination of atmospheric projections that heighten the mood and sliding units that shift (almost) seamlessly from room to room, with only the occasional “thump” to remind us of the stage machinery. Kudos to the designers and 59 Productions for the magic. The hulking boiler and its spectacular destruction of the hotel deserve special notice.

Of the singers, Arthur Woodley is magisterial as Halloran. The hearty cheers he received were well deserved: his robust baritone filled the hall and captured the brief scenes where he appears, at beginning and end.

13178841_10153761432417979_7664365553339574570_n

Brian Mulligan as Jack and Kelly Kaduce as Wendy

As Jack, Brian Mulligan added physical menace to a steel-cored voice. If his rapid swings early in the opera between loving family man and brutal tyrant seemed too precipitous, they were indeed frightening, as they should be. His deterioration in the second act was especially effective, as the Overlook asserts control and less and less of Jack is left. The power of the performance comes from growing intensity of his interpretation rather than any specific musical numbers along the way.

Kelly Kaduce, who sang Wendy Torrance, is deservedly a Minnesota Opera favorite. She sang with expression and beauty of sound, but her role stays long in a limited emotional range, mostly expressing fear of her husband and comfort for her son. Her aria at the beginning, “I never stopped loving you” helps suggest a warmer relationship with Jack, but in that one moment the music doesn’t quite rise to the needs of the text.

It would be remiss not to observe that the teasing and sexy moments between Jack and Wendy are well written, and that both text and actors captured well the mood of King’s novel. In the pared down, two-hour stage presentation they seem too ephemeral, as if squeezed in for relief; expansion of those moments, musically or dramatically, could restore the balance found in the novel’s more thorough back story.

13096261_10153761432437979_1411098242275429888_n

Alejandro Vega (Danny) and Arthur Woodley (Halloran)

 

Alejandro Vega, the 10-year-old who brings Danny movingly to life, shows great talent. His assurance and the authenticity of his emotional reactions to the story reveal a natural actor, but also one who is skillfully trained and directed in the role. He was on stage for much of the performance, and he was fully the equal of the adults with whom he shared the stage. For later productions this will be a make-or-break role. Vega definitely made it.

Minnesota Opera has put together an able ensemble cast for the other roles as well. Mark Walters as Jack’s father who reaches from beyond the grave to drive his son toward murder; David Walton as the seductive former caretaker and multi-murderer Delbert Grady; Robb Asklof as haughty hotel manager Stuart Ullman; Alex Ritchie as the hotel’s depraved founder Horace Derwent: all were scarily effective.

13124879_10153765505342979_5349882607679914159_n

Wendy, Danny and Jack surrounded by ghosts and ghouls

Christie led the Minnesota Opera’s excellent orchestra with care and sensitivity to the singers. I could not find a serious flaw in the balance, and—considering I had not heard the piece before—the pacing seemed just right. We in Boulder, and now audiences in Minnesota, know that his is an important career.

I have no doubt that The Shining will go on to other productions, especially in the United States where Stephen King’s works loom so large in the popular culture. Many more audiences will stand and cheer.

# # # # #

Minnesota Opera has become one of the most ardent and consistent supporters of new opera in the country. When you consider the record of some of the financially larger companies, their record of world premieres in four of the last five seasons (Kevin Puts, Silent Night, 2011; Douglas J. Cuomo, Doubt, 2013; Kevin Puts, Manchurian Candidate, 2015; and Paul Moravec, The Shining, 2016) puts them in a league with the adventurous Santa Fe Opera and few other professional companies.

And they have announced another premiere next season, Dinner at Eight by William Bolcom, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (March 11, 16, 18 and 19, 2017; you may see the entire, enticing season here.) I find it particularly exciting that our own American culture is being mined for operatic subjects, much as European opera has mined their shared culture for generations. This is certainly one of the reasons that contemporary opera is growing in popularity. There is more evidence than The Shining of American opera’s vigor today.

Puts’s Manchurian Candidate wins the audience on opening night

Michael Christie leads taut premiere

750x400_04Manchurian_2

By Peter Alexander

The Minnesota Opera rocked the Ordway last night (March 7) with the world premiere of Kevin Puts’s new opera, The Manchurian Candidate.

The performance was conducted by Michael Christie, former music director of the Colorado Music Festival who is now music director of the Minnesota Opera. A strong cast and first-rate orchestra gave a taut, polished performance that swept the audience up in its brisk, powerful motion, from the brittle, menacing opening sounds in the orchestra to the final, brutal punctuation mark.

Composer Kevin Puts

Composer Kevin Puts

Puts’s only previous opera, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, had its premiere by the Minnesota Opera in 2011. For Manchurian Candidate he set a very effective libretto by Mark Campbell, based on Richard Condon’s 1950s novel of the same title. A gripping if improbable tale of cold-war brainwashing set against the McCarthy-era red scares, the novel was twice made into a film—first in 1962 starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury; and again in 2004 with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber.

Campbell, who also wrote the libretto for Silent Night, here created a very efficient text from Condon’s clunky potboiler. What he could not do is give depth to characters who are often little more than plot devices: Raymond Shaw, the tainted “war hero” who is a pawn of the communists; his war buddy Ben Marco, whose role it is to unlock Shaw’s corrupted mind; Jocie Jordan, who exists only to be Shaw’s love interest and to die tragically near the end; her father, Thomas Jordan, the “good” senator of liberal beliefs; Eleanor Iselin, Shaw’s predatory mother; and her husband, Johnny Iselin, the stand-in for Sen. Joe McCarthy.

That said, the opera runs lucidly through the various complexities of the original story, dispensing with events and characters not essential to the unwinding of the plot’s mainspring. It is this focus on the central story, and Puts’ compelling music, that give the opera both clarity and momentum. And at just over 2 hours including intermission, Manchurian Candidate never drags.

0356-750x400

Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin and Mathew Worth as Sgt. Raymond Shaw. Minnesota Opera production of “The Manchurian Candidate” by Kevin Puts. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Puts has written a score of power and complexity. As scene moves rapidly to scene, he is extremely effective in changing moods and providing what contours he can to the relatively flat characters. The aura of menace around Shaw’s mother is creepily apparent, and one cannot miss the bluster and pomposity of her dim-witted husband. Similarly, the horror of Shaw’s brainwashing, the shallowness of the political hangers-on, and the languid warmth of Shaw’s “summer by the lake” are all well conveyed through the music.

Puts has mastered a range of styles, from the military band music that greets Raymond Shaw’s arrival as a Medal of Honor winner, to the delightful train music of one lighter scene, to a patriotic hymn, to the manic music of a political convention. The text is set clearly and is almost always intelligible, with the vocal parts embedded in atmospheric orchestral sounds that illuminate the meaning of the text.

The text only lost intelligibility when two different scenes were unfolding at once. Then one was grateful to have supertitles; otherwise, the audience would have no way of knowing what occurred in a some critical moments in the opera. In a theater without titles, this could be a serious shortcoming.

Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw. Photo by Michal Daniel.

In his setting of English, Puts appears to have learned from the operas of Benjamin Britten—nowhere more so that in Raymond Shaw’s “mad scene,” in which the mixed fragments of previously-heard texts recall Britten’s mad scene for Peter Grimes. If not original, it is effective and was powerfully sung by baritone Matthew Worth.

Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. Popto by Michal Daniel

Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco. Photo by Michal Daniel.

While it is not possible to cover everyone in the large cast, mention should be made of Leonardo Capalbo as Ben Marco. His scene recalling his nightmares, “Night After Night,” was one of the most effective set pieces in the opera.

Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin and Daniel Sumegi as Senator Johnny Iselin in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin and Daniel Sumegi as Senator Johnny Iselin. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Soprano Brenda Harris has the opera’s most virtuosic music, particularly in her scene at the end of Act I, calling on “My darling little boy” and foretelling that “Terrible, terrible things will happen in this country.” This moment of almost Queen-of-the-Night threat and fireworks is a great dramatic stroke, set in the middle of a party scene that can only be described as satirical, and it was spectacularly dispatched by Harris.

Daniel Sumegi’s rough-hewn voice was appropriate for Johnny Iselin’s bluster, if not particularly beautiful. Angela Mortellaro was a lovely, winsome Jocie Jordan. Other roles, from the Chinese and Russians who brainwashed Shaw to the partygoers at the Iselins’, all filled their roles ably.

The production made good use of designer Robert Brill’s unit set. Kevin Newbury’s direction was uncomplicated and natural. There were a number of effective touches, including the menacing men in suits who moved furniture and seemed to be looming behind the scenes at critical moments, and the lighting effects that seemed to put Shaw in the shadow of prison bars when others were in open light.

Michael Christie

Michael Christie

But above all one must credit conductor Michael Christie and the musicians of the Minnesota Opera orchestra. Playing in an exposed pit, they only once covered the singers. Christie maintained the flow of the opera ably. Although it is hard to judge a new work, every tempo felt right, the transitions happened smoothly and there were no audible stumbles in the complex score. I particularly appreciated that Christie did not make an entrance into the pit to elicit applause, but just started both halves with no warning.

The Manchurian Candidate is an important new opera, and it was given a worthy premiere performance at the Ordway Music Theater last night. The audience responded warmly at the end, and recognized Harris in particular as a favorite with shouts and a standing ovation.

One must congratulate the Minnesota Opera for their ongoing commissioning and support of new opera. They far surpass some much larger companies in that regard. Indeed, the recent history of the Minnesota Opera in general, and the success of The Manchurian Candidate in particular, shows that new operas can provide compelling music drama and find an important place in a successful company.

Additional performances of Manchurian Candidate will be March 8, 12, 14 and 15. Visit the Minnesota Opera Web page for details and tickets.

# # #

The same weekend as the premiere of Manchurian Candidate, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra opened a beautiful new concert hall in the Ordway complex, with concerts Thursday and Friday evening (March 5 and 6).

This is the first time in its 30-plus-year history that the SPCO has had a home that was designed for a chamber orchestra. Previously they played many concerts in the Ordway Music Theater, whose proscenium stage, members of the orchestra say, muddied and muffled the sound that reached the audience.

To judge by the performance I heard (Friday evening, March 6), the new hall is a spectacular success. It is a beautiful space, with gentle curves, warm wood and sound-reflective gypsum blocks dominating the visual aspect. No one is more than 90 feet from the stage. The sound is very present all the way to the top of the second tier—where I was sitting. Even the softest pizzicatos carried well and the texture was consistently clean and transparent. I didn’t know if the audience’s standing ovation at the end of the concert was for the performance, or for the hall.

The first half of the program was well chosen to show the orchestra and the hall to good advantage. Playing without a conductor but following concertmaster Steve Copes’s cues, the orchestra gave a brilliant account of Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony. Every note of the sparkling string parts came through, and the winds were bright and clear throughout.

After Prokofiev, the SPCO gave an unlisted performance of Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, apparently decided on at the last minute. With string playing at a barely-audible whisper and the trumpet sounding beautifully from the balcony, this was an extreme test of both orchestra and hall, and both passed, again brilliantly.

The piece commissioned for the occasion, Coraggio for string orchestra (from String Quartet No. 3) by George Tsontakis, is a pleasant, unchallenging score that passed muster as an occasional piece. If it did not test the orchestra as much as Prokofiev and Ives, it served its festive purpose well.

The second half of the concert, again without conductor, was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. It was good to hear it played by an orchestra of the size Beethoven would have known, especially of the quality of the SPCO. The dynamic range was impressive, and the momentum at the end brought the audience to their feet. But on the whole I found it less satisfying than the earlier pieces: the balance was less sure, some individual lines were too prominent, and the overall contour of the piece less controlled than might be the case with a conductor.

Still, it was a wonderful concert, and it gives hope to all fans of the SPCO. They now have a home worthy of the orchestra’s quality.

# # #

NOTE: Updated March 8 to include the running time of the performance and future performance dates  of Manchurian Candidate.