Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Thais”

Kelly Kaduce as Thais. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Minnesota Opera’s production of “Thais” is a lavish spectacle that will leave you breathless. Stage Director Andrea Cigni masterfully brings to life the two disparate worlds of the main characters Thais and Athanael – two worlds that are destined to never coexist.

Composed by Jules Massenet and first performed at the Opera Garnier in Paris in 1894, the story centers on the devout monk Athanael and his desire to convert Thais, the infamous courtesan and priestess of Venus. Along their conflicted spiritual journeys the two characters ultimately switch roles – Thais having a chaste religious rebirth and Athanael abandoning his faith in the hope of fulfilling his fleshly desire for Thais.

Kelly Kaduce shines as Thais, her glittering soprano equally capable at hushed seduction as well as divine epiphany, masterfully capturing the dual-sided nature of the character. Likewise, Lucas Meachem brings an impressive baritone and an imposing presence to Athanael, a man deeply rooted in his theological convictions but increasingly lost by his growing feelings for Thais.

One of the true highlights of the evening is Set and Costume Designer Lorenzo Cutuli’s gorgeous designs, which capture the two distinct worlds of “Thais”. The setting for the orderly, ecclesiastical world of Athanael is dominated by stark whites and silvers. It is in a dream of Athanael’s that Thais’ materialistic world is first revealed – a world draped in the rich, amber tones of gold and yellow. The slow reveal of this as a backdrop rises is rapturous, and akin to a divine mystery being unveiled. Throughout the evening Cutuli’s perfect combination of setting and costume makes the stage look like a Romantic painting come to life. Just when I thought one particular scene could not look any more beautiful, rose petals started to fall from above the stage. A slight misstep is the odd scenery choice in the third act that does not mesh well with the mostly traditional approach taken in the rest of the opera. But in regards to the overall visual design, I guarantee you will not see another production in the Twin Cities this ravishing for many seasons to come.

The orchestra’s adept performance of Massenet’s ethereal music is the perfect complement to the magnificent visuals seen on stage. Conductor Christopher Franklin deftly leads his players throughout the work’s breathtaking score. In particular, the famous “Meditation” is handled here with great care, with Thais’ spiritual conversion represented by seraphic dancers performing inspired choreography by Heidi Spesard-Noble. It’s a shame that the violin soloist is not credited in the program. It’s beautiful, and the talented artist deserves credit for their work.

My favorite moment of the evening is Thais’ first entrance in “C’est Thais, l’idole fragile”. Massenet’s music here is exquisite in its soft, sensual beauty, and Kaduce and the orchestra deliver it with assured grace and loveliness. Their performance, combined with Cutuli’s dream-like visuals, make the moment the closest I’ve come to feeling pure bliss in a theater for a long time. I advise you to run, not walk, to get your tickets to this theatrical experience now – you won’t regret it. I know I’ll keep it as one of my very favorite operatic memories of all time.

5 out of 5 stars.

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Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto”

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Olafur Sigurdarson and Marie-Eve Munger (Photo by Cory Weaver)

Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto” is a timely, thought-provoking new production of a classic opera. First performed in 1851, its tale of men corrupted by absolute power preying on the less privileged is eerily relevant in 2018. Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless and gorgeous music is stunningly played by the orchestra under the baton of Michael Christie.

Director Austin Regan sets his production in a dystopian Mantua, given an appropriately Orwellian physical representation by Scenic Designer Julia Noulin-Merat’s stark and angular set, replete with a descending wall of surveillance cameras, as well as the constant presence of hovering windows through which every character’s action is watched and scrutinized. A misstep in the design is the black plastic-wrap covering most of the walls of the scenery. It’s perhaps a nod to the heroine’s ultimate fate, but overall it’s an odd choice for a bold statement. Paul Whitaker’s dim lighting design is also a hindrance. While lending a foreboding air to the proceedings, it is at times difficult to make out exactly what is happening on stage.

The Duke of Mantua (Joshua Dennis) rules over this totalitarian empire with a nonchalantly predatory behavior towards women; behavior encouraged and gloated upon by the men of his court. This includes Rigoletto the jester (Olafur Sigurdarson) who obliges and abets his master’s exploitative whims, having recently assisted the Duke in seducing and bringing about the societal downfall of the Count of Monterone (Kenneth Kellogg)’s daughter. Because of this, the Count appears at the Duke’s lavish palace and lays a father’s curse upon Rigoletto’s head.

This curse shakes Rigoletto to the core. He has sheltered his daughter Gilda (Marie-Eve Munger) all her life, allowing her only to leave their house to attend church. Little does he know that, in her innocence, she has fallen in love with the Duke whom she has seen at church. Munger is the standout performer of the evening, bringing a sweet and guileless presence to Gilda. She is charmingly exuberant as a young woman in love for the first time, and her rendition of the aria “Caro nome” is a true highlight.

In retaliation of Rigoletto’s constant prankstering the men of the Duke’s court abduct Gilda and bring her to the Duke’s bed. Upon discovery of the abduction Rigoletto makes his way to the palace and begs his daughter’s abductors for her life. Sigurdarson is capable of conveying Rigoletto’s tortured angst through his gorgeous baritone but Regan’s sometimes static staging limits Sigurdarson’s ability to fully encompass the character’s tragic pathos. With this scene in particular, what should be a desperate and heart wrenching moment comes off as stilted by the limited action on stage. Sigurdarson merely sings out into the audience instead of directly addressing and pleading with his daughter’s abductors.

The strongest moments in the production are those that take place between Sigurdarson and Munger as father and daughter. Their tender and playful introductory scene makes their reconciliation after Gilda’s abduction all the more heartbreaking and bittersweet. The heart of “Rigoletto” is the bond between these two characters and it is rightfully the centerpoint of this production.

Now that the Duke has satiated his lust for Gilda, his interest has diverted to new exploits. As the Duke, Dennis gets to perform the most well-known aria from the opera, “La donna e mobile”, and he does it with braggadocio and aplomb. It’s not difficult to imagine the lyrics (“locker room banter”) coming out of the mouth of a world leader or Hollywood mogul. This irony is not lost in this production and the tragedy that ultimately unfolds is made startlingly pertinent.

Despite Gilda’s protestations Rigoletto swears revenge upon the Duke. He hires the assassin Sparafucile (Matt Boehler with a rich, reverberating bass) to kill the Duke. Rigoletto also reveals the Duke’s infidelitous nature to Gilda by observing with her a tryst between the Duke and Sparafucile’s sister, Maddalena (Nadia Fayad), who starts out as her brother’s accomplice in crime but quickly falls under the rapacious spell of the Duke. Maddalena ultimately convinces Sparafucile to spare the Duke’s life and kill instead the first person to show up at their door. The quartet between Rigoletto, Gilda, the Duke and Maddalena is movingly staged through lighting and direction to overcome the physical area the characters inhabit and reflect pure emotion, their voices overlapping and intertwining in their separate yearnings, space and time fluidly merging and dividing throughout the piece of music.

In the end Gilda decides to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Duke and the love she still feels for him. She takes the Duke’s place at the end of Sparafucile’s knife and, in this production, Sparafucile deposits her in a trash bag that he intends to throw in the river. Rigoletto, his thirst for revenge not yet fully sated, insists on disposing of the body himself, only to discover, by hearing in the distance the strains of the Duke singing, that it is not the Duke inside the sack but his own daughter. Rigoletto embraces Gilda in her last moments of life, the Count’s curse having now fully descended upon him.

It’s appropriate that director Regan’s most profound staging choice takes place at this moment – with a chorus of men literally turning their backs on the tragedy they’ve helped instigate. As the stage lights go out and the house lights come up, we as an audience are left with the realization that the Duke’s Mantua, not so very different from our own world, is no longer a habitable place. As Yeats so eloquently put, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” It’s no longer acceptable to turn our backs and let injustice, persecution, and preventable deaths go unacknowledged. The time has come for change.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ “Camelot”

“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love…There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it.”

The character Merlyn delivers this monologue in T.H. White’s classic fantasy novel The Once and Future King. It’s not usually a part of Camelot, Lerner and Loewe’s 1960 musical adaptation of the work, but it is a welcome addition in Michael Brindisi’s staging of the show now playing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. It nicely bookends the evening and conveys the theme of this particular production.

In his Director’s Note in the program Brindisi states his intention to focus on the romantic aspects of the story for this outing (the fourth in Chanhassen’s history, but the first seen by me). This is evident in everything about the production; from Rich Hamson’s lush costumes to Nayna Ramey’s beautiful scenery and Sue Ellen Berger’s evocative lighting design. A popular approach in contemporary reinventions of classic musicals is to focus on the darker, grittier aspects of the story and in the recent past Camelot has been given this treatment. It’s refreshing to see a production that embraces the romantic, lighter fantasy aspects of the story and one unafraid to yearn for that “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

The well-known story revolves around the legendary medieval love triangle of King Arthur (Keith Rice), Queen Guenevere (Helen Anker) and Sir Lancelot (Zach Keenan Kacey) that brings down the democratic utopia of Camelot. Arthur’s wicked and illegitimate son Mordred (Tony Vierling) makes an appearance as usual, but his part is purposefully given much less significance in order to draw a sharper focus on the ill-fated love story that destroys the kingdom and Arthur’s dreams of peace.

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Keith Rice as Arthur (Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp)

As the show progresses Rice’s Arthur grows in maturity with it. Even if at the start of the show Rice is a bit too much of a prankster he satisfyingly morphs into the wise and world-weary Arthur at its conclusion. Alan Jay Lerner’s book is often derided for its wordy dialogue, but it was wonderful to see the entire cast, Rice especially, focusing so much on the words Arthur speaks and the ideas he develops and believes in. This classic show is not as creaky as its unwarranted reputation deems it to be.

The regular actor playing Lancelot, Aleks Knezevich, was out for the performance I saw, and taking his place was Zach Keenan Kacey. If not for the replacement notice in the program I wouldn’t have guessed that Kacey was an understudy. It’s easy to make Lerner’s version of Lancelot into a caricature, the braggadocio of his introductory number “C’est Moi” inviting this portrayal. Kacey wisely resists this; his Lancelot is a sensitive and introspective young knight, and his lilting tenor provides a delicate and unique delivery to the show’s most famous ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

Although convivial with both, a bit more chemistry between Anker’s Guenevere and her leading men would be welcome. She has a nice, warm moment with Rice’s Arthur during “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” but the drama needs more – it should be evidently clear that her genuine love for these two men is tearing her apart. The stakes are much less high when this passion is nonexistent.

It is Brindisi’s approach to the role of Merlyn (played by David Anthony Brinkley) that really makes this Camelot what it is. In most productions Merlyn is a throwaway character, one who provides a grand presence in the first scene but once bewitched by a nymph named Nimue disappears for the rest of the show, leaving Arthur to remember his wise words and futilely call upon the wizard when he needs assistance. Giving Merlyn the first monologue at the top of the show, as noted above, provides a much stronger foundation for his integrality to the plot. In the second act during one of Arthur’s darkest moments he hears Merlyn speak these same words and they provide a much-needed lesson, one that Arthur couldn’t have appreciated as much in his youth when Merlyn first spoke them to him.

Tamara Kangas Erickson’s choreography likewise bridges gaps in the narrative to help portray the musical’s thematic vision. Her artistic choice to represent Nimue with not just one, but four graceful dancers during the song “Follow Me” is an inspired one, and again provides unity to the later scene in Act II by bringing back one of these dancers when Arthur reminisces about Merlyn in the forest. The dancers representing horses in the Act I jousting scene are perhaps not quite as effective as their Nimue counterparts, but do serve their purpose in telling that part of the story.

It’s a shame that two wonderful songs featured in the show on its Broadway opening – “Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness” are not included in this production. This is not unusual – they were both cut halfway through the show’s original Broadway run to tighten up the running time. The omission of “Fie on Goodness,” however regretful, makes sense with Brindisi’s wish to focus on the love triangle bringing about Camelot’s doom. “Take Me to the Fair,” however, provides necessary characterization for Guenevere as well as an important development in her future love affair with Lancelot. It was reinstated for the film version and really should be for all subsequent stage productions.

As Camelot nears its sad but hope-filled concluding scene it is evident just how timely the show has once again become. In a current political climate of anger, hate and intolerance a Utopian vision of peace, acceptance and inclusivity is something the world needs right now. Perhaps it’s only a pipe dream, but one also possessed by the late John F. Kennedy, who cited Camelot as his favorite musical, forever correlating the title song of the show to his presidential legacy. It’s sad and terrifying that recent and current political leaders have gone the opposite route, promoting endless war, hate and violence – To paraphrase a line of Arthur’s near the end of the show – are we really back where we began? With Camelot Michael Brindisi makes the case for there always being a glimmer of hope in the future, even if that glimmer is “less than a drop in the great blue motion of the sunlit sea,” for some of those drops do sparkle. They do.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Das Rheingold”

Minnesota Opera’s Das Rheingold is an aural delight, but in an irony that contrasts with its production design, one hampered by uninspired stage direction.

Director Brian Staufenbie gives this Rheingold a futuristic setting with the familiar Norse gods wielding technological power in lieu of the traditional fantasy magic. To aid in this vision, David Murakami’s striking projections are utilized throughout the entire opera. They’re at their best during the transitions between scenes, from river to mountaintop to underworld, but provide little during the main dramatic scenes of the opera. The possibilities of telling this story with technology are limitless, and a more inspired direction would have combined these digital assets with equally arresting physical stage movement to achieve a more cohesive whole. A prime example of this in the production is when a dwarf transforms into a dragon. The underwhelming digital flash that’s provided leaves the audience yearning for some kind of real-life stagecraft.

Richard Wagner wrote this first of his four Ring Cycle operas for an extremely large orchestra, one unable to fit into modern theater orchestra pits. Out of necessity then, the orchestra, in top form and conducted by Michael Christie, is placed right on the stage, a move which necessitates an innovative and imaginative staging. Staufenbie fails at providing this. Many of his singers are given no blocking or movement, leaving the audience with a dramatically inert two and a half hours that, alongside Murakami’s projections, is pretty to look at but theatrically hollow.

In a tempestuous election season it’s hard not to notice the political underpinnings of the power struggle in Das Rheingold. The opera opens in the middle of the Rhine river. Three lovely Rhinemaidens (Mary Evelyn Hangley, Alexandra Razskzoff and Nadia Fayad) protect the precious Rhinegold that, if fashioned into a ring, has the ability to give its bearer unyielding power. A dwarf named Alberich (Nathan Berg) spies them and tries to woo them. The Rhinemaidens mercilessly tease him while also foolishly telling him of the Rheingold’s power. When his amorous attentions are rejected Alberich snatches the Rhinegold away, determined to possess its invincibility.

The story moves to the lofty mountaintop abode of the gods, represented by a large bridge hanging over the orchestra. Wotan (Greer Grimsley), ruler of the gods, is awakened by his wife Fricka (Katharine Goeldner) to discover that construction of their new home, Valhalla, is finished. The two giants who built the hall, Fasolt and Fafner (Jeremy Galyon and Julian Close) arrive, demanding the payment Wotan promised them: Fricka’s sister, the goddess Freia (Karin Wolverton).

The representation of the giants is the most disappointing and frustrating element of the production design. The two singers portraying the giants are positioned below the bridge, on stage with the orchestra. A screen descends and their bodies are projected onto it in a blur of video noise. Because of the distance from their fellow cast members they are unable to interact with them in a realistic and dramatic fashion.

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Loge (Richard Cox), the demigod of fire, arrives and tells the group about the magical ring Alberich has fashioned. Fasolt and Fafner agree to take the ring instead of Freia if Wotan can obtain it. The rest of the opera concerns Wotan and Loge’s descent into the dwarf underworld of Nibelheim and the eventual theft of the ring from Alberich.

Despite the lackluster staging, many of the vocal performances are outstanding. Grimsley and Goeldner provide the regal bearing and authoritarian voices you would expect from rulers of the gods, but it is Berg as Alberich who steals the spotlight. His is by far the strongest and most memorable performance of the evening. Also notable are Cox, who brings a whimsical presence to Loge, Denyce Graves, who makes a short but thrilling appearance as earth goddess Erda, and the trio of Hangley, Razskzoff and Fayad who bewitchingly play the Rhinemaidens.

In short, this Rheingold is notable for its performances by both singers and orchestra, but the staging leaves much to be desired. Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas have the potential to be wonderfully theatrical pieces of art, but only when the director imbues them with an acute sense of dramatic storytelling.

3 out of 5 Stars

The Snow Queen

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The “Amoco” Giveaway

Weird but true: my relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” started with a gas station. A small children’s book edition of the tale was given out as part of a promo at Amoco gas stations in 1989. This is the first time I’d ever read the story and it started a lifelong love affair.

First published in 1844, “The Snow Queen” is one of the unique fairy tales that Hans Christian Andersen penned himself. Unlike the Grimm Brothers who collected traditional folktales told in their country, Andersen most often wrote brand-new, original stories in the same vein. Many of the most famous fairy tales today, such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” we owe to Andersen’s brilliant imagination as they have no antecedent in traditional folklore.

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Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Told in seven parts, the story of “The Snow Queen” begins with two children, Kai and Gerda, who are neighbors in their small town. Their houses are connected by a small garden between and they love to play and tend roses there together. One winter’s day a piece of enchanted mirror flies into Kai’s eye and it distorts his vision so that everything beautiful in the world appears to him as ugly. He turns his back on his friendship with Gerda and becomes mean and cruel. While playing with a gang of rough-and-tumble neighborhood boys he unknowingly hitches his sled onto the sleigh of the evil Snow Queen and she drives him off to her wintery palace. Gerda sets out after them, resolute in her desire to free Kai from the Snow Queen’s icy clutches. She travels far and wide on her quest, meeting princesses, ravens and robbers along the way. Finally, standing within the frozen halls of the Snow Queen’s polar palace, Gerda discovers that the power of love is the only thing that can destroy the Snow Queen’s formidable hold over Kai.

Over the years Andersen’s story has been adapted for nearly every art form – theater, music, film and opera to name a few. As part of my fairy tale year I explored many of the most significant adaptations throughout the month of March and wanted to share a few of my favorites here.

The 1957 Russian animated film was the first movie adaptation of the story. I watched the 1990’s English dub for the first time last month and I was impressed at the level of artistry on display. It’s not surprising to discover that master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki credits it as one of his inspirations for working in the field. The film adheres very closely to Andersen’s original storyline and I can’t help but wish that Disney’s Frozen had similarly stayed true to its original source material. Frozen has been acclaimed for its supposed feminist stance but Andersen’s original is even more so in the fact that the story involves a girl saving a boy.

4421670Joan Vinge’s 1980 novel adapts the tale for adult science fiction readers and was one of the first in the genre to include a cast of almost-exclusively female main characters. In the book Gerda and Kai are transformed into the characters Moon and Sparks, two lovers literally separated by time and space by the all-powerful Arienrhod, the Snow Queen who rules their planet. In her quest to reunite with Sparks Moon must uncover and confront numerous secret political machinations. She holds not only Sparks’s fate in her hands but that of their entire world. Andersen’s tale works well in this retelling as an epic journey across an alien landscape. Vinge’s novel starts out a bit verbose and flowery but soon becomes action-filled and tightly-paced. It’s shocking that such a vast and sprawling yarn can fit into less than five hundred pages and demonstrates Vinge’s masterful storytelling.

The 2002 film Snow Queen is the sweet, modern take on the tale you would expect from a Hallmark production. On my first viewing I appreciated the development of the relationship between Gerda and Kai in the first half, but this time around I found the second half more intriguing. Screenwriter Simon Moore (The 10th Kingdom) cleverly ties the main parts of Gerda’s journey to save Kai into the revolving seasons – in this version Gerda meets the Snow Queen’s three sisters who rule each of the other seasons respectively. From each she learns a different aspect of maturation: the Spring Witch wants to keep Gerda an eternal child; the Summer Princess possesses an adolescent preoccupation with choosing a mate; and finally, the Autumn Robber teaches Gerda the strength and courage she’ll need as an adult. This helps develop Gerda’s character and amplifies the importance of her relationship with Kai. Gerda and Kai’s eventual return home at the end is deservedly emotional and richly satisfying.

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Tiffany Amber Knight as the Snow Queen

Composer Paul K. Joyce’s lyrical 2003 concert oratorio The Snow Queen was adapted for film by the BBC in 2005 with mixed results. I purchased the CD of the score when it was released prior to the film and was enchanted and moved by Joyce’s music. James Andrew Hall was responsible for the film adaptation and most of what’s wrong with it resides in his teleplay. Many of the most moving musical passages in the score are either eliminated (“The Mirror and Its Fragments”) or marred by dialogue (Kai’s rescue by Gerda during “The Snow Queen’s Palace”). Luckily the best song, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” is retained and filmed adequately if not profoundly. Much was made at the time of the CGI special effects. They do give a “moving storybook” feel to the film but more often than not they seem to hinder the action rather than enhance it. Tiffany Amber Knight, however, is dazzling in her glorious CGI raiment as the Snow Queen.

My favorite adaptation of the tale also premiered in 2005 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It’s a folk musical version created by Michael Peter Smith. As a birthday present my partner bought us tickets to see the recent Park Square Theatre production in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I was enchanted by how beautifully it captured the spirit of the story. A talented ensemble of actor/musicians, haunting music and gorgeous physical design brought the tale to life and I felt like a child again, discovering the story for the first time. It was a truly moving experience that brought tears to my eyes several times.

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“The Snow Queen” at Park Square Theatre

Emily Gunyou Halaas brought a warm presence to her multiple roles including the Narrator and Mother. I especially enjoyed the lovely lullaby she sang as the Finn Woman to Gerda right before the climactic scene in the Snow Queen’s castle. Similarly, Caroline Amos and Silas Sellnow were perfect as Gerda and Kai and Sara Ochs provided a memorable turn as the Sami Woman who led the hilariously punny “Fish Song”.

It’s unfortunate that no official recording has been made of the show since the score is absolutely beautiful. Luckily I was able to find a YouTube video of one of my favorite songs, a duet between Kai and the Snow Queen. It’s a great way to close out my fairy tale month of March: