Following the tremendous success of their first operatic collaboration Silent Night, the team of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell are at it again, offering a riveting operatic adaptation of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. The opera debuted in Minnesota in 2015 to great enthusiasm, and premiered regionally at the Austin Opera this past Saturday, September 17 to thunderous ovations. Though Condon’s novel has attained a certain renown through the years, The Manchurian Candidate lives in the minds of the common American mostly through two film adaptations, and while not aiming to dismiss the valiant efforts of one Meryl Streep in the 2004 version, we are happy to report that the opera tends to hail the earlier film in tone and structure most.
Translating a novel to the operatic medium is no small task, and in this their second opera, the team of Puts and Campbell predictably took the opportunity to make some structural changes to the score and libretto for the Austin Opera premiere in order to refine the opera’s dramaturgy. The first major reworking was noted in the opera’s opening scene in which the programmed POWs believe themselves to be at the Ladies Garden Club of Northern New Jersey, when in reality they’re partaking in a presentation to a gathering of Communist officials. This scene is brilliantly depicted in the 1962 film adaptation, where celluloid magic, with its various cuts and transpositions, allowed for a demonstrative representation of brain washing. This ambitious scene fared less well during the opera’s Minnesota premiere, and was abridged for the Austin presentation to give more emphasis to the plot of the Manchurian delegation at the expense of the ladies of the garden club. While the edit yielded a tighter efficiency, your friends at newoutpost greatly missed Mr. Puts’ masterful transition between the opera’s grating overture and the peppy allegro that greeted the scene at its Minnesota premiere. Another edit, one of greater repercussion, took place in the second act when Ben Marco attempts to deprogram Raymond Shaw and in the process reveals Raymond’s new instructions for all to hear. While this change clearly brings Puts and Campbell closer to the novel source, in the context of the lyric stage it threatens to undercut the theatrical tension and even deaden the effect of the opera’s final scene (not to mention the shift of focus from the tragic fate of Raymond Shaw to uneasy questions about the true nature of the Ben Marco character). We do not claim genius of any sort, and at the end of the day the composer and librettist are free to follow the George Lucas path, but we like the new opera (something we do not often say) and want it to do well, and silently pray these edits are not final ones.
Following his Pulitzer prize-winning Silent Night, it is only natural for the work of composer Kevin Puts to attract greater scrutiny. At a glance, concerns have focused on the multi-sourced, pastiche quality of his operatic works, calling out an incongruity in style which troubles those wanting to declare him America’s next great composer for the lyric stage. To the ears of yours truly, these observations are undeniable and we suspect that Mr. Puts would admit to a certain affinity to some of the great composers of the past (Bernstein, Glass, Britten, and even Jerry Goldsmith come to mind). Also, as such was the case in Silent Night, The Manchurian Candidate’s score is unapologetically cinematic, and it would come as no shock to anyone if Mr. Puts became a very successful film score composer if his opera gig were to fall flat.
Does this disqualify his efforts? Absolutely not. In fact, it is the manner with which he marries these seemingly disparate styles within a uniform musical concept that hallmarks his very special brand of genius. He somehow manages to find the right musical gesture for scenes of remarkably contrasting emotional tones and seamlessly and, dare we call it “pleasantly” (?) transition from one to the other in a non-jarring fashion. We would offer the assassination of Mr Gaines and its lead into the breakfast scene at the Iselin residence to highlight just one of many examples which showcase this talent. The opera’s pacing is also inspired, and Mark Campbell’s libretto deserves a great deal of credit here. The crown of their joint effort, Eleanor Iselin’s act two “Hello, my son” could be used as the soundtrack of the 2016 presidential race, and the premiere’s relevance to the upcoming November election added an extra series of goosebumps to the evening as reports of the NY city bombing greeted patrons on their way out of the theater that night.
For this regional premiere, the Austin Opera chose to forego a standard staged production and elected to present the opera in concert format. Ignoring the theatrical limitations associated with concert performances, director Alison Moritz managed to generate quite an atmosphere by use of projected multimedia designed by Greg Emetaz and by way of clever positioning and blocking. If anything, the orchestra itself became the opera’s main set, and this was quite apropos considering the dominant role the orchestra plays in the success of any performance of this work.
At its helm, maestro Richard Buckley at times got carried away, and he occasionally shifted the balance to the orchestra at the expense of the voices. This muddled the clarity of the text in some dramatically important scenes (like the quartet in the finale of act one), relegating the audience to consult the supertitles in more than one instance. To the maestro’s great credit, this fault was a side effect of his palpable enthusiasm for the piece, and instead of feeling daunted by the complications of the piece, he delivered the mammoth score with extraordinary panache.
The extensive cast list was filled by the Austin Opera with an impressive lineup, and the leading principals were particularly formidable. Baritone David Adam Moore may not have been part of the opera’s original run, but the role of Raymond Shaw could have been written for him. His voice is ample, even in production and responsive to most of the score’s extraordinary demands, and he consistently fulfilled his music with an outpour of round, beautiful singing. This in itself would provide a caveat: While his physical acting was well conceived, his sturdy vocalism (something we generally rank as a positive) held back a vocal portrayal which should ideally lean on frailty. This was most evident during his act two aria “Lies, lies, lies” where weakness was represented by the interpolation of groans and sobs rather than an adjustment in coloration. That Mr. Moore sailed through the score’s complications and the high tessitura with considerable success certainly compensated for this shortcoming, and he threw himself into this demanding and rewarding part completely. He is a talented young singer who we hope will further simmer his resources with the passing of time.
Tenor John Robert Lindsey, the voice of the TV announcer at the opera’s Minnesota premier in 2015, graduates here as Raymond’s army compatriot, Ben Marco. His is a voice we know well, having heard him several times during our mid-west adventures, and we’re happy to report that he lavished Mr. Puts’ score with some of his best singing heard to date. Prior to this presentation, Mr. Lindsey was viewed by this writer as an artist of untold potential but held back by an erratic production. But just as we heard when he debuted as Jonathan Dale in the composer’s Silent Night, the music of Mr. Puts seems to bring out the best in his singing. For this performance, he exhibited his most poised singing to be heard until now, cementing his position as a young artist to watch.
Reprising her part as Eleanor Iselin, Brenda Harris used her well-focused dramatic soprano to chilling effect. Much has been said of her talents, including this blog, and the basics of her instrument bear repeating: It is a large soprano voice of a cool edge and remarkable flexibility, evenly produced and expressive throughout its range. In the past we have openly admired her technical prowess in some of the most testing leading roles reserved for her fach (Norma, Elektra, Camilla in Mercandate’s Orazi e Curiazi, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth to list but a few). Her assumption of Eleanor Iselin, a part written specifically for her proclivities, surely ranks amongst her finest portrayals. As the American operator responsible for controlling her own son, her Eleanor was cleverly achieved through a variety of inflections, hearty vocalism and a cold-blooded yet wistfully disembodied tone that meticulously summed up her near demonic intentions. Her every measure was realized with steel cold rigidity and yet she found the right mix of sweet, slithery piani to thoroughly disturb the listener when she revealed herself to the shell that was left of her son. Her partner in crime, Senator Johnny Iselin, was entrusted to Australian bass Daniel Sumegi who created the role at the opera’s premiere, and the audience could have not asked for a better pairing. His voice is large, dark, and seemingly the perfect vehicle to embody the ruckus puppet vying for the highest office in the land. The mind projects quite a splendid pair were these two to meet again as Verdi’s Scottish spouses.
The smaller roles were well served by the Rosie Chayney of mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck, and the clear, crystalline Jocie Jordan of soprano Mela Dailey. It should go without saying that the role of Andrew Hanley was luxuriously cast by the celebrated baritone Donnie Ray Albert.
This production of Kevin Puts’ The Manchurian Candidate formally opened the Austin Opera’s 2016-17 season, which will also include performances of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander, Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. For more information, please visit the company’s website at austinopera.org