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.

Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Rigoletto”

Rigoletto Production Photo
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

The Snow Queen

snow queen book
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.

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.

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.

“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:

Fairy Tale Music

Fairy tales have inspired countless composers and musicians throughout the centuries. I’d like to share a few of my favorite musical pieces for your listening pleasure, some of which were directly inspired by fairy tales and others that simply invoke the fairy tale world.

My partner introduced me to Shostakovich’s wonderful Festive Overture and I’m forever grateful. It’s the perfect entry music to the fairy tale world. It’s easy to imagine a colorful cast of fairy tale characters cavorting to this regal piece:


With its delicate waves of tinkling glissandos, “Aquarium” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals suite brings to mind frolicking fairies and magical enchantments. This piece also inspired Alan Menken’s prologue music to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast:


Based on the Charles Perrault tale, Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the most famous fairy tale ballet in existence. Tchaikovsky’s music became so synonymous with the story that when it came time for Walt Disney to make his animated version in 1959 he chose George Bruns to adapt the ballet score for the film medium. The ballet’s Act I waltz is the most well-known musical piece from the score, and was transformed into the song “Once Upon a Dream” with lyrics by Tom Adair in the Disney film:


In 1864 Edvard Grieg set four of fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen’s love poems to music. One of these was “Jeg Elsker Dig” (“I Love You”). A beautiful declaration of love, Andersen wrote the original poem to acquaintance Riborg Voigt who ended up marrying another man. Grieg’s aching melody is the perfect accompaniment to Andersen’s simple, wistful words:


“Le jardin feerique” (“The Fairy Garden”) is the last movement in Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and, as its name implies, illustrates the gradual awakening of an enchanted fairy garden into magical, burgeoning life. With its glorious crescendo, Ravel’s piece provides a stunning conclusion to our musical journey in the land of the fey:


All of these pieces and even more of my favorites can be found in a YouTube playlist I’ve specially created. You can access it below or at the link right here. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.