Fort Worth — The Texas Christian University School of Music’s opera studio has been in the world premiere game in recent years; in 2018 it premiered The Falling and the Rising and now we get Yeltsin in Texas, with music by Evan Mack and a libretto by Joshua McGuire. David Gately, who is behind this new direction for TCU Opera and has a long history with new opera, directs, while Stephen Cary conducts.
Yeltsin in Texas, based on a true story, is a wonderful mishmash of opera and musical comedy, and even boasts a touch of vaudeville.
In 1989, Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected member of the Soviet parliament and the Supreme Soviet, visited the Lone Star State. It started out with an eye-opening tour of Houston’s Johnson Space Center, but an improvised stop at a nearby Randell’s Grocery Store left him astonished. According to reports, he had never seen such a display of abundance as he surveyed the variety of grocery store offerings that we take for granted. Not only was there an amazing array in that store, he was even more impressed with the fact that there were such stores everywhere, both in the city and even in the most rural outposts of the country.
Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin quoted him this way: "Even the Politburo doesn't have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev."
Reportedly, that visit, more than seeing the space center’s advanced technology, convinced him that the Soviet Union needed to change, which he proceeded to do upon his return. But the ingrained corruption was too much for hm to battle so he left in disgrace. His successor was Vladimir Putin and, well, here we are.
As for TCU’s staging, the entire production team deserves a round of applause. The clever, almost cartoonish, hand-painted set is by Richard Kagey, and the hodgepodge of 1989-styled costumes are by Steven Bryant, with Tyler Beard on lighting design.
The student cast plays the “people,” with each one creating a different character of supermarket customers and employees. It looks like the diverse group that you would find in a grocery, albeit a predominately youthful crowd like you would find in a store near a college campus.
There are some imported artists as well. Sam Parkinson, a graduate of TCU’s opera program who has appeared locally with both the Dallas and Fort Worth operas as well as other distinguished companies around the country, is Yeltsin. Kelly DeLameter, as the clerk, is a graduate student at TCU, but also has an impressive résumé of professional achievements, and does a fine job. Guest artist Jonathan Walker-VanKuren gives a funny turn as the Mall Cop and soprano Janani Sridhar is terrific as the Manager. (The opera is double cast; so you might see another cast if you go Saturday night or to the Sunday matinee.)
My biggest criticism lies with the lack of music to create the different characters. While the music is generally excellent, one of the beauties of opera is the opportunity to give a distinctive musical voice to each character that allows the actor to use it as part of the portrayal. This is noticeable mostly in the character of Yeltsin; as a result, Parkinson comes off as more professorial than the boisterous, drunkenly rash, bigger-than-life Yeltsin of real life. Other characters are more explicitly depicted.
Overall though, this is a delightful and funny production with catchy and enjoyable music, excellently sung.
CORRECTION: The composer's name is Evan Mack. His first name was wrong in the original review. TheaterJones regrets the error.