MARK ADAMO (born 1962): Becoming Santa Claus—Jennifer Rivera (Queen Sophine), Jonathan Blalock (Prince Claus), Matt Boehler (Donkey/Messenger), Hila Plitmann (Yan), Lucy Schaufer (Ib), Keith Jameson (Yab), Kevin Burdette (Ob); Members of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas Children’s Handbell Choir; The Dallas Opera Orchestra; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded in performance at The Dallas Opera, The Winspear Opera House, AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas, Texas, USA, during December 2015; The Dallas Opera 888295497824 (DVD) / 888295497831 (Blu-ray); Available in DVD and Blu-ray and formats from CD Baby – WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]
In their well-known song ‘Simple Gifts,’ the Shakers sing that ‘when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.’ It is suggested that this ‘place just right’ is found via continual self-awareness and adjustment, turning one’s life to follow the meandering path of simplicity. This seems straightforward enough, but how complicated it is to be simple in the Twenty-First Century, when every variation of diversion—and perversion—is only a click, a swipe, or a verbal command away, not least in the season of tinsel and twinkling lights!
Too often, the holidays give directors and opera companies excuses to commit and perpetuate artistic atrocities like the plethora of confection-laden, stupidly saccharine performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. There are the heartless Nutcrackers and the progressions of Messiahs so dispiriting that the most ardent admirer of the music thinks that affection misplaced. Like so many aspects of contemporary life, the Arts have largely abandoned the contemplativeness of the holidays in pursuit of the coffers-filling commercialism, embracing the tinkles of coins in the till and ignoring the dormant wonder in the eyes of awed, challenged audiences. That The Dallas Opera upended this trend is surprising to no one familiar with the company’s initiatives and the integrity with which they are enacted, but the success of TDO’s world première of composer Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus must have stunned those for whom the holidays are defined by reluctant meetings with family, hours spent in queues in shopping malls, and meals with more calories than flavor.
Like Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, in which there are themes far darker than those explored in many productions, Becoming Santa Claus is not a pièce d’occasion to be performed only when the jingling of sleigh bells perforates the air. No, Becoming Santa Claus is not a festively-attired Ring des Nibelungen in which a department-store St. Nicholas and painted-snow North Pole stand in for Wotan and Walhalla, but Adamo produced a score in which the quest for individual purpose that is the soul of the story forms the foundation of the music’s structure. The development of thematic material in the music complements the interplay of ideas in the text, the musicality of the composer’s libretto meticulously matched with the poetry of his music. To listeners acquainted with Twenty-First-Century opera, the suggestion that a score is accessible to audiences lacking a high tolerance for tuneless droning implies an accusation of banality, but Adamo’s easily-absorbed idiom is sophisticated without demanding that the listener possess an above-average appetite for musical modernity. Both the vocal writing and the orchestrations in Becoming Santa Claus exude ingenuity, but the score’s complexities never mask the opera’s inherent simplicity. The operas of too few contemporary composers exhibit genuine affinity for writing for voices, and one of the greatest accomplishments of Becoming Santa Claus is the adroitness of Adamo’s vocal craftsmanship. Even when dizzyingly difficult, the angular vocal lines are singable and memorable—the hallmarks of effective opera whether composed by Mozart, Verdi, Gounod, Wagner, or Adamo.
In the world-première production preserved on this release, Adamo’s music and words burst into life in The Dallas Opera’s magnificent Winspear Opera House. Stage director and choreographer Paul Curran creates a world in which space is used with exactitude, his movements intrepidly danced by Kym Cartwright, Caradee Cline, Jason Fowler, Matt Holmes, Tom Klips, and Elise Lavallee. The claustrophobia of the opera’s critical emotional conflicts is made all the more gripping by the expansiveness of Curran’s direction, the principals’ individual isolation contrasting tellingly with the lavish brilliance of Gary McCann’s set and costume designs, evocatively illuminated by Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting. The magical transformation of the Winspear stage into a bustling environment in which the significance of moments of profound stillness is apparent is completed by Driscoll Otto’s imaginative projections. David Zimmerman’s wig and makeup designs balance creative uses of the singers as canvases upon which to paint portraits of the characters with practicality that minimizes impediments to motion and vocalism. Above all, the artisans assembled by TDO provided this inaugural production of Becoming Santa Claus with a pervasive atmosphere of open-hearted amazement that fosters the audience’s surrender to the nuances of the opera’s narrative.
Under the musical management of TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, the performance of Becoming Santa Claus on this DVD is an inspiring and never coldly didactic traversal of a score that, as Händel said of his Messiah, was clearly intended to both entertain and enlighten. It is not a score without room for improvement: a few passages, especially those featuring the quartet of elves, could benefit from writing dedicated more to clear articulation of text—a few less words of which would perhaps also prove more effective—than to exploitation of the extremes of the singers’ ranges, and the opera’s dramatic momentum stalls in the final scene. A noted master of the operatic repertoire of his native France [following his début on the podium for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in the 2004 - 2005 Season, Villaume’s engagements at The Metropolitan Opera have included performances of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Bizet’s Carmen, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, and Massenet’s Manon and Thaïs], Villaume responds to the impressionistic aspects of Adamo’s shimmering tonalism with the same intelligence and energy that guided his leadership of TDO’s 1998 production of Gounod’s Faust. The virtuosic handling of Adamo’s music by TDO’s Orchestra is particularly apparent in Kirk Severtson’s and Brian Bentley’s respective playing of the celesta and harpsichord, the latter tuned a quarter-tone flat at the composer’s instruction, but all of the TDO musicians maintain a high level of achievement in their executions of their parts. The young ringers of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas Children’s Handbell Choir perform their task with charm. Collaborating with manifest camaraderie, TDO’s musical forces successfully recreate in sound the visual allure of the production.
Soprano Hila Plitmann as Yan, mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer as Ib, tenor Keith Jameson as Yab, and bass Kevin Burdette as Ob fearlessly deliver Adamo’s demanding music for the elves, their complete commitment to their rôles heightening the consequence of parts that might all too easily devolve into a collective cliché. Plitmann’s upper register emerges unscathed from the gauntlet of Adamo’s stratospheric writing, and Schaufer sings and acts with unerring musical and dramatic instincts. Yab’s and Ob’s music does not provide Jameson and Burdette with opportunities to reveal the finest elements of their considerable artistries, but their voices shine individually and in ensemble.
The presence in the dramatis personæ of Becoming Santa Claus of a singing messenger in the form of a donkey raises the specter of an operatic Shrek, but fears of that haunting are alleviated by the spiritedly human performance of the rôle by bass Matt Boehler. Like his colleagues in elven guise, Boehler faces music that tests his powers of intonational accuracy and projection across a broad compass. The part’s low center of vocal gravity is not ideal for Boehler, but the singer’s unflappable musicality and theatrical savvy triumph. Wholly avoiding barking and braying, Boehler utters his character’s messages with vitality and evenly-produced tone.
Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera brings to the rôle of Queen Sophine, Prince Claus’s mother and the figurehead of an oppressive social order, a well-trained, artfully-refined technique and credentials including acclaimed interpretations of an array of rôles in various styles. Imperious and imposing in this performance, she portrays Sophine as a flawed woman and a failing parent, a mother whose relationship with her child is affected by the shallowness of her own self-cognizance. The scion of an absent family, Sophine is the bridge between Claus and the duty to which he is bound, and she takes her responsibility as that link very seriously, to the detriment of her own identity. Of unmistakable importance is Adamo’s sympathetic music for the character, however: as in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Il trovatore, the struggling parent captured the composer’s heart. In Rivera’s performance, Sophine earns the observer’s affection, too. The chill of the queen’s persona is warmed by Rivera’s confidently beautiful singing, and her regal glamor gives way to a touching honesty, not as a near-miraculous metamorphosis but as total recognition of the maternal tenderness that defines her. Rivera reveals that the Sophine who terrorizes her court is a façade: beyond the insatiable pursuit of outward perfection is an overwhelmed, vulnerable woman grappling with the demands of raising a pubescent son.
At the core of TDO’s production of Becoming Santa Claus is boyishly handsome tenor Jonathan Blalock, whose portrayal of the adolescent Prince Claus is an understated tour de force. Vocally, the demands of the part are met with assurance, not least in the frequent flights above the stave, and Blalock enlivens Claus’s music with the same technical acumen that he deploys in Rossini’s writing for Conte Almaviva and Don Ramiro. Though he was an eleventh-hour replacement in this production, Blalock embodies his rôle with a naturalness that belies the opera’s fantastical concept. His Claus is the boy becoming Santa Claus, of course, but he is also a boy on the precipice of manhood, a relative of Saint-Exupéry’s petit prince who must find his own way of surviving in the world into which he was born. Endearingly convincing as a boy of thirteen, Blalock depicts Claus’s maturation as a palpable, sometimes painful transition. Even the timbre of his voice seems to undergo a shift from the bright patina of his early scenes to the burnished richness of the opera’s final quarter-hour. The character’s evolution from petulant selfishness to existential awareness is powerfully conveyed. Nevertheless, this is opera, and it is the voice that matters most. Blalock invigorates Claus with a voice kissed by starlight, here placed at the service of a characterization that is at once subtly perceptive and resoundingly uncomplicated.
Enjoyable as they can be, the world little needs new holiday spectacles of the Dickens and Disney varieties. The holidays should be a time of reflection, not of distraction, but bright lights and garish displays are more comfortably scrutinized than internal shadows. Without eschewing the technicolor pageantry of the season, Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus is essentially a very straightforward story. A boy destined to become a man of worldwide prominence must first grow into a man capable of understanding why the part that he plays is relevant. Presenting Adamo’s score with flair, finesse, and an omnipresent belief in the viability of modern opera, The Dallas Opera’s production of Becoming Santa Claus movingly affirms that, even for the most famous bringer of holiday joy, it is indeed a gift to be simple.
The little St. Nick: tenor Jonathan Blalock as Prince Claus in The Dallas Opera’s world-première production of Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, December 2015
[Photo by Karen Almond Photography, © by The Dallas Opera]