There isn’t much going on in Indianola, Iowa, and its residents (ie: a handful of grindr chatters) will be the first to remind you of their bleak existence. Tallying up their stories against a quick drive around town, and their complaints are not without basis. There’s the Super Walmart on Jefferson Way, a super salty Mexican restaurant (La Casa, just drink more water,) and a stroll further down Highway 65 offers a Hot Air Balloon Museum. That really is about it. Happily, there’s also Simpson college, a quiet institution which houses the Blank Performance Center, venue were Des Moines Metro Opera stages its summer festival productions and the sole reason why Indianola figures prominently in the nation’s operatic map. Now in its 41th season, the company has maintained a consistent excellence under these unlikely conditions, and has conjured an unapologetic lineup comprised of Britten’s Peter Grimes, Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and Strauss’ Elektra. It is no surprise that this summer’s program has attained the company national recognition and provided the reason for newoutpost’s current report.
We first sampled Peter Grimes. Under the direction of Kristine McIntyre, DMMO’s take on Benjamin Britten’s opera was stark, moody, and often excellent whenever the director exercised restraint. Much was achieved through the use of lighting (a nuanced and poetic feat by lighting designer Barry Steele), and the director relied on simple three-dimensional sets to create an atmosphere of austere severity. The merits of Ms. McIntyre’s interpretation suffered some whenever supernatural symbolism was applied (such as imagery projected against the perfection of the ocean background, or the mass choreography of blunt mob mentality). These extraneous effects became something to ignore rather than to relish. Thankfully, these isolated moments were not the norm, and McIntyre’s final scene was exemplary of her best work: The mimicking of the daily grind from the opening of the first act, the tragic events of the night before unregistered in the communal consciousness. A monumental grief forgotten, set against the naturalistic elements of the otherwise quiet seashore town.
Ms. McIntyre was fortunate to be working with an outstanding cast to carry out her vision, the heart of which boasted tenor Peter Honeywell’s masterful portrayal of the tortured, mentally unstable Peter Grimes. As experienced on the July 5th presentation, his interpretation ranked as a stunning triumph. The possessor of a tenor with a cool, arid edge, and capable of dominating Britten’s orchestral tidal waves, his tones perfectly matched the desolate air of the persecuted title character – only to become wonderfully intense when projecting into his unattainable dreams of respectability and societal acceptance. Whether by conscious choice or not, the opera’s homosexual undertones were mostly glossed over throughout the evening, though Honeywell’s vibrant reaction at the presentation of his new apprentice did not go unnoticed. During passages requiring a more intimate touch, he convinced no less, and his frequent moments of mental distress were wonderfully realized by way of some unorthodox vocal choices. His piani, for instance, were not what would be considered true, sustained singing. Rather, he reverted to a dangerous falsetto that constantly threatened to crack in mid phrase. If assessed as a pure feat of vocalism, they would rank as an instance where technical proficiency came to near grief. In the manner with which Mr. Honeywell applied them to Peter Grimes’ mad scenes, they proved an excellent tool for expression; the hallmark of a valiant artist who not only dares to make such choices, but has the artistic know how to achieve a great effect through them.
In the sympathetic role of Ellen Orford, Irish soprano Sinead Mulhern’s success was also assured though somewhat less complete. She has the stage presence of a first rate Ellen, and though she is the possessor of an attractive lyric voice, it turns brittle whenever it tackles the might of the orchestra. To her credit, she does a lot with this voice, and can knead her resources into an expressive instrument that can render the ear immune to her vocal limitations. This alone is quite an advantage on her side, and this very quality allowed her to overrule an initial impression of being a merely functional player during the opera’s initial scenes, maturing a generalized character sketch into an intimate portrayal by the opera’s second act. A clever artist surely aware of her shortcomings, she knew exactly when to let her acting provide the expression when her voice could not be counted on to thoroughly carry the sentiment. She reserved her finer voice for the role’s prize highlight, the embroidery aria (“Embroidery in childhood was a luxury of idleness “). Even here, the singing itself was not the feature (squarely phrased and bare in color), but rather the manner with which she sang it. Her eyes, the way her hands held the found jersey, her quiet processing of the situation before her, all were touches from a thorough and sensitive artist. As Peter takes his boat into the ocean in the final scene, her silent pantomime wrenched a final gasp from the audience, who knew then to prepare itself for Britten’s emotional vacuum at lights out.
The secondary roles were also handsomely cast, beginning with the fine Balstrode of Todd Thomas. The owner of an ample baritone with a Verdian edge, Mr. Thomas’ warm and compassionate captain was the perfect counterpart to his neurotic and edgy friend. Highlights from the less admirable members of this picturesque community were led by Susan Shaffer, whose huge mezzo soprano reminded all that she was not long ago an ideal exponent of the role of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. She was seen here as a wonderfully boisterous auntie. Her trampy nieces were perfectly filled out by formidable performances from Sara Ann Mitchell and Dana Pundt. Tenor Corey Bix was appropriately insufferable as Bob Boles, an apt compliment to Kathryn Day’s eerie portrayal of Mrs. Sedley, the odius widow who could make Nancy Grace nervous of her job. Once the borough has zeroed in on its Frankestein, the principals were supplemented with the chorus of the Des Moines Metro Opera apprentices. The unified voice of this mob shook the foundations of the auditorium as they commanded the presence of their victim in the opera’s final act. These imposing forces were supported in the pit by the strains of the Des Moines Metro Opera Festival Orchestra, and were admirably held together through the pit falls of this complex score by the baton of the company’s Music Director David Neely.
The success of Peter Grimes was followed by a mediocre presentation of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, which despite a few isolated luminaries failed to congeal into a performance of significant importance. The accusatory finger could be heavily waved towards the uninspired treatment of the piece by director Linda Ade Brand, who was neither able to pull off any significant degree of theatrical tension between the rival families, nor achieve any romantic chemistry between the opera’s title characters. The proceedings were pressed along in a dejected fashion, with only the music gestures indicating their significance (thanks to the alert baton of conductor Kostis Protopapas). To Ms. Brand’s credit, she cannot act out the parts herself, for despite their ideal age and physical attributes, her main principals were incapable of radiating a palpable rapport, and contrary to the modern wisdom which claims that opera is more believable at the hands of attractive, skinny singers, the love affair between these star-crossed lovers struck one as far less convincing than that of Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford from the previous night.
Among the culprits, though certainly not the main one, was the Juliette of Sara Garland. A beautiful young brunette with a perky, silvery soprano, she has a strong list of prerequisites to fill the classic heroine’s shoes, at least on paper. As heard on the evening of July 6th, her efforts were thwarted by a tendency to constantly over sing against an orchestra that at no point threatened to overwhelm her resources. This pesky need to press forward complicated her delivery of her famous opener, act one’s “Je veux vivre”. She left out the required trill at the opening cadenza, and the simple carefree atmosphere of the aria seemed at odds with the labored passagework offered by the artist, who lacked the fluidity to negotiate its various turns. She was mercifully allowed some breathing room to cram it all in by conductor Kostis Protopapas, but the musical balance was severely sacrificed by the song’s midpoint. At times, her phrasing took on a sweet romanticism (the capping of the “Loin de l’hiver morose” section was appropriately relished,) yet the overall hard-edged approach undermined this advantage. Her steely singing proved far more serviceable for Juliette’s poison aria, the customarily omitted “Amour, ranime mon courage”. Here the soprano’s more strident tones did much to portray the desperate, frightened Juliette as she considered Friar Laurent’s potion, even managing a respectable trill to illustrate Juliette’s fear and vacillation. Her style did become more fastidious throughout the various duets with her Romeo, but she was unfortunately undermined by her partner’s retorts at every turn.
Jason Slayden (Romeo) and Sara Gartland (Juliette) in DMMO’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette
Despite being far from ideal, Ms. Garland’s Juliette significantly bettered the Romeo of tenor Jason Slayden, who proved to be a bit of a cipher onstage. A dashing, good-looking young man, Mr. Slayden deployed a breezy tenor with an attractive bronzy core, but as an artist his interpretation was hampered by technical insecurities. The top notes were disconnected and strained, and he lacked the appropriate breath control to flesh out the famous “Ah! Leve-toi, soleil!” The aria was made memorable mostly by the singer’s struggle to satisfy Gounod’s demands, often leaving phrases unsupported in favor of a loud high note. The stress of it all seemed to discourage from him any attempt at a musical interpretation, and his stage deportment also became more and more malnourished as the evening wore on. The tenor’s sparse creativity flat-lined the four duets he shared with Ms. Garland (who often completely eclipsed his tones), in essence the heart of the entire opus, and their cool interaction made any tender detail (such as the long held kiss between the couple during their wedding rites) seem like an awkward interpolation. This all summed up to be quite a shame, because Mr. Slayden clearly has a voice of great promise. Suffice to say he is as of yet unready to fulfill this tremendous part.
This performance of Gounod’s opera allowed for a second hearing of tenor Heath Huberg, an artist whom (we felt) had let us down in Sarasota back in February when he sang the principal role of Nadir in Bizet’s Pecheurs des perles. Seen here in the secondary part of Tybalt, Mr. Huberg cut a striking figure onstage and was musically alert in his short assignment (we like it when an artist can manage to prove us wrong). Curiously, it would be the secondary characters who would come through as the silver lining to this troubled affair. Prominent among them was the Mercutio of baritone Craig Verm. whose expressive “Mab reine des mensonges” endowed act one with an early highlight. Also heard well was mezzo Soprano Susan Shaffer as Juliette’s nurse Gertrude, and in the small role of the young Stephano, mezzo Soprano Sarah Larsen projected a considerable amount of charm despite a somewhat throaty production.
Capulets versus Montagues in DMMO’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette
Tallying up one hit and one miss, it was left for Richard Strauss’ Elektra to serve as the tiebreaker for the company’s summer festival. A challenging opera to cast, this small mid-western company should be praised not just for the very feat of mounting the work, but for delivering an Elektra that could easily stand alongside the great performances of the past. The production was an unforgettable triumph, and the hand of director Dugg McDonough surely played a big part in making this Elektra the success that it was. Armed with sets provided by scenic designer R. Keith Brumley, Mr. McDonough achieved much with what could, at first glace, be dismissed as a used Yma Sumac prop. For our taste, we missed the more Freudian and psychosexual flavor of Hofmannsthal’s adaptation, but Mr. McDonough paid special attention to the sane side of Elektra, a woman who loved her father so much it would be insane not to obsess over avenging his death. There is a lot of love in this Elektra, as seen by her consolation of Chrysothemis at the news of Orest’s death, or by her doting over her brother as she struggles to recognize his face. This re-humanization of Elektra made the character even more terrifying, and luckily for the director, he had an artist available to him who could deliver such a spine chilling impersonation.
The title role of Elektra ranks among the most demanding in the soprano repertoire, a killer part requiring the heaviest of declamation and a soundproof technique. For the unprepared, it could prove career ending. For its first production of the work, the Des Moines Metro Opera secured the services of a company favorite, the soprano Brenda Harris – an artist newoutpost has come to know very well. As very few sopranos have arrived to this cruel score via a bel canto path, the very prospect of Ms. Harris’ new assignment naturally inspired a tirade of paranoid misgivings. Would her voice not only cut through Strauss’ heavy orchestration, but dominate it? Would her singing remain expressive at such heroic proportions? Would she survive the part’s intense and high tessitura? And the superhuman stamina needed to survive the duration of this merciless role – would she have that too? At lights out, our brains fried, we could happily report that our concerns were wholly unfounded: She had served up nothing short of hochdramatisch sopran realness – an achievement which ranked second only to her Norma!
From the very top of her performance, the monologue “Allein! Weh, Ganz Allein”, all concerns were single-handedly set aside as Ms. Harris’ voice imposed itself against the cacophony and soared through the hysterics of this testing solo. Starting from the molten core of her middle register, to the seamless ascend up her stentorian top, and back down towards the depth of her lower tones and chest emission, she exhibited imperial control over her resources, which attained a tremendous size by way of an exemplary focus. This technical prowess, surely a bel canto byproduct, allowed her voice to capture the anguished and detailed remembrance of her father’s murder, the outraged accusations against those who are to blame, the rejoicing of the eventual vindication: All vividly realized through expressive singing of the highest order. Along the way, she excelled all the trappings expected of her part, in particular the confrontation with the bedraggled Klytamnestra, played here by the legendary Joyce Castle (inspired casting indeed!). Their cat and mouse routine was particularly detailed, Elektra reeling in her mother with the softest and meekest coloring (so expressively sung, blind men could have seen the singers’ faces,) only to playfully corner her with the mention of the exiled brother. Elektra’s big reveal, “Was bluten muß Dein eigenes Genick” was achieved via an incomprehensible brand of controlled dementia, complete with wall wrecking high Bs and Cs, an expression of distilled deafening hate the likes which would challenge the work of any of the great Elektras of the past. A detail of further note: the amount of veritable beautiful singing deployed by Ms. Harris throughout her part, a centerpiece to her wooing of Chrysothemis to joint her in matricide (filled with long held piani and rich messa voce) and in her subsequent meeting with Orest. Indeed, she had it all, from the loudest and highest to the softest and lowest. It is rare to hear an Elektra who can produce her most beautiful sounds 108 minutes into the evening and then drops dead, yet this is exactly what took place in both performance we attended (July 7th and 9th). If anything, these performances revealed two things: A new Elektra has arrived, and Brenda Harris – alas, remains indestructible.
In casting the women in Elektra’s immediate family, DMMO once again managed to find the right balance. As Chrysothemis, soprano Julie Makerov would not go gently into that goodnight. Here was another gargantuan instrument, armed with a muscular and gritty middle, sizeable chest, and an extraordinary top register. Together with Ms. Harris, they took turns in merrily shaking the foundations of the Blank Performance Center. Her own monologue, “Ich hab’s wie Feuer in der Brust” was delivered through singing of a blunter school, more than sonically satisfying, yet it revealed an occasional disconnect between these voices which she would do well to smooth over. Visibly pregnant during these performances, we will give her a pass, but if the separation continues a word of caution would be warranted as the heavy assignments likely to continue to come her way historically do very little in the way of tuning up voices. Such word of caution is merited when we encounter a young singer with a big, meaty voice. We want to hear them often, and for a long time.
Such is the case of mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, an artist who has ensured her rightful place in Valhalla through four decades of artistic excellence, featured here in the tragic role of Klytamnestra. For a singer who has been at it for as long as she has, it is refreshing to find ourselves not making excuses for the state of her instrument. The voice remained large throughout her range, the fortissimo at the top can be a bit tremulous, but the roundness in her mahogany middle notes was age-defying, her contralto still full and menacing. As Klytamnestra, her interpretation of the guilt-ridden queen was hypnotizing, and when it came time to chew the scenery, she threatened to overtake the entire proceedings (her exit cackle was the stuff of legend). Eyes and ears simply gravitated towards her, and it took a healthy dose of the Brenda Harris high C to level the playing field. Indeed the confrontation between these two artists would be the highlight of these extraordinary performances of Elektra, and we can all but thank our friends at Des Moines Metro Opera for making it all possible.
The secondary roles for Elektra were cast with no less care. The small but pivotal role of Orest was handsomely filled out by the luminous voice of baritone Philip Horst. On to higher voices, tenor Corey Bix, a former DMMO apprentice already making a name in the international scene, returned to the company with his over the top impersonation of Klytamenstra’s lover Aegisthus. The audience was also treated to a particularly fine selection of servants at the opera’s introductory scene, stand outs included Kathryn Day, Sarah Larsen, and we reserve a special mention for Rebecca Krysnki . Her fifth maid was not only well sung, but she was soundly flogged about the stage to the delight of all. We salute her. The forces of the Des Moines Metro Opera Orchestra were lead by the company’s Musical Director David Neely, who deserves a much praise for his well crafted execution of Strauss’ complex orchestral puzzle, at times flying blind due to the constraints of the covered pit. Bravi tutti!
The Des Moines Metro Opera Summer Festival returns next year with Verdi’s La Traviata, Heggie’s Dead man walking and Rossini’s Le comte Ory. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.desmoinesmetroopera.org/