Dallas — We humans are endlessly curious. It may have killed the cat but it also led us to explore our universe from the smallest particle (still on the to-do list) to peering at the very edge of space and time. “Why?” is our motto, it would seem. So, it is hardly a surprise when we want to know the back-story of even fictional characters. For example: Do Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara ever get back together?
Mark Adamo’s cheery new opera, Becoming Santa Claus, takes on one of our great-unexplained mysteries: Who is Santa?
Mark Adamo is a fine composer with three successful operas already on his ledger (Little Women, Lysistrata and the recent The Gospel Of Mary Magdalene). Becoming Santa Claus, commissioned by The Dallas Opera and premiered on Friday at the Winspear Opera House, is his very personal take on Santa’s origins, as the composer also formulated the story and wrote the libretto. Adamo doesn’t bother with the boring actualities about the sainted Greek bishop St. Nicolas and his elevation to our current picture of a rotund, secular, white-bearded distributor of toys. (He does keep the part about elves and the reindeer-drawn flying sleigh, however). Adamo creates a completely new legend for his Santa Claus and sets a Pixar-esque opera with an explosion of kaleidoscopic music.
It is the day of Prince Claus’ 13th birthday party and his demanding mother, Queen Sophine (who is also a sorceress) is driving her servant elves to distraction in an effort to make everything perfect. His absent father never shows, so the Queen has invited her three brothers in hopes that seeing his uncles will cheer up her bratty and recalcitrant child. They, too, are no-shows because they are busy in another story. They are the three mysterious Magi from Matthew’s biblical version of the birth of Jesus, following a miraculous star to Bethlehem. However, at least they remember to send gifts to their disappointed, doubly disillusioned nephew.
The symbolism of their gifts to the child in Bethlehem of Gold (royalty), frankincense (holiness) and myrrh (foretelling his death) completely escapes the Prince and he decides to have his elves make some amazing toys, which he will personally deliver. He says it is to honor this newborn, but his true motivation is to show up his uncle’s paltry offerings. The effort takes time, and Claus and the elves are running late. The prince asks the queen for magical help getting to Bethlehem but she refuses and, instead, gives him a piece of her mind. “This is not giving, this is revenge,” she hurls at him. Being 13, a willful age, he goes ahead with his plan anyway. Of course, the child and family are already gone. Instead of throwing a fit, he realizes that his mother was right (aren’t they always?). You can probably guess what he comes up with for a solution as to what to do with all of the gifts and Adamo sets his admirable resolve with 10 minutes of the most beautiful and moving music in the opera.
That tear-producing ending follows a neo-romantic, but musically diverse score. He sets the text syllabically, in a rapid-fire presto, rarely stopping to reflect. Adamo does not have the gift of melody; so don’t expect to leave whistling a Nessun Dorma-style earworm. His singing lines are angular, and every time you think it will begin to soar, he moves in another direction. Instead of striking melodies, Adamo creates many beautiful moments instead. His vast varieties of musical influences are evident (but whose aren’t?) and run the gamut from Gian Carlo Menotti to Jay-Z.
He frequently takes the singers to the extreme top and bottom of their ranges, which creates some occasional shrieks and growls amid an abundance of admirably crafted singing lines. He follows the old “number” opera format, with distinct arias and ensembles, but presents his three acts without an intermission (100 minutes total running time). The scene changes are covered by clever animation that links the scenes by progressing the story along.
His orchestration is nothing short of amazing. He writes for a small chamber-sized orchestra that resembles a Broadway pit band more than the standard opera orchestra. One brilliant touch is using two pianos tuned a quartertone apart to add an out-of-kilter sound when things go awry. There is a magical moment of orchestral inspiration at the end, which would be unfair to reveal. However, those participants, and you know who you are, did a wonderful job.
Jonathan Blalock is perfect as the typically difficult 13-year old Prince Claus. Knowing that he stepped in at the last moment makes his performance even more amazing. His light tenor voice is focused, so it projects as well as bigger voices. That said, it is his right-on and charming characterization that is at the core of this opera’s success. He never crosses that all-important line between bratty and annoying. He goes from sulky to jumping up-and-down-with-excitement in a flash.
Jennifer Rivera is also terrific in creating a believable character. She is excellent as his long-suffering and love-smothering mother who tries to maintain her icy demeanor to hide her heart of gold. She is a single mother raising a difficult child, Queen and Prince not withstanding. The lighter, more lyric, mezzo voices usually lack the same carrying “ping” that helps Blalock project, and although she is no exception, she produces a lovely sound.
The glue that holds the plot together is a quartet of elves that are the servants in the palace; inspired by a great tradition of operatic clowns, such as the burlesque group in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos to the inseparable trio of Ping/Pang/Pong in Puccini’s Turandot.
The four elves are also very strong actors and create their wacky characters with comic timing worthy of an episode of I Love Lucy. Lucy Schaufer plays Ib, the harried boss of the elves. She displays a strong mezzo voice and an exasperated sigh. As Yan, soprano Hila Plitman is given what has to be the operatic role with the most extreme and numerous high notes. However, she successfully pulls of a very funny innocent naiveté. Tenor Keith Jameson has a strong voice and is a fine Yab. The astonishingly versatile bass-baritone Kevin Burdette eats the scenery as Ob. (This is his fourth world premiere in a row in 2015; he was in the Dallas Opera’s premiere of Everest, Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain this summer in Santa Fe and Dallas Opera’s Great Scott just a few weeks ago). The excellent bass Matt Boehler is given the difficult task of playing multiple roles that turn out to be the same person (another spoiler alert).
Filling the dual roles of stage director and choreographer, Paul Curran keeps everything moving quickly but the stage never looks frantic. In fact, the entire opera is choreographed: not in a dance-like way but using constant and precise movement. Gary McCann’s Art Nouveau costumes and sets are an icy blue but amazingly light because he decorates the back of the set with huge open and arched windows. Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting goes from atmospheric to bright daylight and Driscoll Otto’ projections become characters advancing the action.
Music Director Emmanuel Villaume is a marvel of control and efficiency on the podium. Conducting without a baton, he leads both the orchestra and stage through Adamo’s thicket of notes and rhythms. The score is complicated and its complexities could easily overcome anything else going on. Not so with Villaume. He tames all of the musical intricacies into a unified score in such a way that most of the audience is unaware of any individual passage, no matter how novel.
The question on everyone’s mind afterwards was: will Becoming Santa Claus become a new holiday staple or be relegated to “Christmas Past”? It probably won’t rival The Nutcracker or Handel’s Messiah; they have way too big a lead. However, I consulted my favorite oracle, my Magic 8 Ball, and it said: “the conditions are favorable.”
We will see.