18 December 2017

Catching Up With: Adamo’s ‘Becoming Santa Claus’

Foreground: Rivera, Boehler, Blalock; background: Plitmann, a bit of Jameson, Burdette.

It’s usually the case that new operas require a second hearing from me: I can’t absorb all the music at once, and sometimes I can’t even be sure what I think of a work overall. This was especially true of David T. Little’s Dog Days, which I admired extravagantly and yet didn’t fully appreciate until I’d heard it several times. (Who knows? Maybe I still don’t fully appreciate it. I’d better keep listening to find out!)

As I’ve written here, I required a few hearings of Mark Adamo’s first opera, Little Women, before I could separate what Mark actually wrote from what I expected. Unpredictability is an asset, and who knows whether I could have enjoyed so many performances — and a recording — of this opera over the years, if it actually had been the sound I originally anticipated? Mark is smarter about these things than I could ever be.

A company in Texas, Houston Grand Opera, produced the first performances of Little Women, and I first saw it not in the opera house but in a New York City hotel room, where the company had arranged a special screening of the video, for those critics and writers unable to watch the television premiere. Somewhat similarly, another company in Texas, The Dallas Opera, produced another premiere of an opera by Mark Adamo, Becoming Santa Claus, and I first saw that at a special screening of a live performance that was simulcast in New York. Now a DVD of Becoming Santa Claus has been released, and I’ll have the opportunity to hear it and see it often — and I expect that I’ll want to. (I’ll also want to see a live performance in a theater one of these days. Opera companies, take note.)

Jonathan Blalock as Claus.

From the start of the overture, Mark makes clear that, while this is a “family opera” (as marketers like to call them), he refuses to talk down to child audiences. This is sophisticated musical writing, intriguingly scored — and in that respect it’s no different from Mark’s other work. He never lets the listener grow complacent; he always has a surprise up his sleeve. Consider the Toy Sequence in Scene Two, where the Elves’ quartet “will extend as far outside traditional operatic technique as taste and [the singers’] ability will permit,” Mark advises, aiming to include “jazz improvisation, rap, and/or quasi-percussive choral utterance.” For all the score’s ambition, however, it remains accessible — something that became clearer to me the second time I heard it, at a private screening of the DVD in New York.

Becoming Santa Claus is, like Mark’s other operas, designed to permit extraordinary performances from its cast. It’s also great fun. That Toy Sequence features some of the worst, ugliest toys you’ve ever seen. (Think of the Misfit Toys in Rudolph, then imagine even more catastrophic failures.) The bridge between Scenes Two and Three is an orchestral interlude that features a hilarious computer-animated sequence — which also recalls the film sequence in Berg’s Lulu (not hilarious) in its innovation and placement. In the finale, a handbell chorus of children emerges from the audience, and as charming as the Sensurround jingling is on DVD, it must have been thrilling to experience in the house. (And it’s a great way to involve the community at large.)

Mark’s libretto isn’t entirely secular — he hasn’t scrubbed away “the reason for the season” as other origin stories, such as Rankin/Bass’ Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, do — and yet it treats religion lightly. More important are the relationships among the characters. The plot centers on Prince Claus, a spoiled brat whose parents, the King and Queen of frozen Nifland, have separated. Claus is looking forward to his thirteenth birthday — a celebration so lavish that the court servants, the Elves, haven’t had a day off in three years. But Claus’ uncles won’t be attending the party: a Donkey–Messenger announces that, instead, the three Kings are following a Star and will be giving presents to some other Child, who has just been born.

Declaring frankincense, gold, and myrrh to be unsuitable gifts for a baby, Claus decides to outdo his uncles, and instructs the Elves to make the best presents in the world, and lots of them. But then comes the question of how to deliver them. By the time Claus gets to the stable, Mother and Child have left already. Claus understands the difference between presents and presence, that it’s more important to be with someone than to give them fancy goods. He learns a lesson about himself, about family — and figures out what to do with all the presents that are piled up in his sleigh.

Who wouldn’t want a gigantic dancing Sham-Wow for Christmas?
Jameson, Plitmann, Burdette, Schauffer, and the toys.

For the world premiere, Emmanuel Villaume conducted with his customary deftness and attention to instrumental detail; I’ve admired his work many times, yet I think believe is the first time I’ve heard him in contemporary rep. And the company assembled a dream cast, with Jennifer Rivera as a delectably glamorous Queen Sophine; sonorous Matt Boehler as the Donkey–Messenger (with a secret); and an all-star assemblage of Elves: sky-high soprano Hila Plitmann (Yan), mezzo Lucy Schaufer (Ib), tenor Keith Jameson (Yab), and bass Kevin Burdette, having some fun after Dallas Opera’s previous world premiere, Jake Heggie’s Great Scott, just a few weeks before.* When you recall that some children in the audience probably never heard an opera before, you have to believe that surprise and delight ran rampant when the kids heard the range of things the human voice can do.

Jonathan Blalock stepped into the title role on short notice, yet it’s hard for a viewer to believe anyone else was ever considered. His clean, bright tenor voice displays an absolute command of the challenging score, he’s an affecting actor as always, and he looks gorgeous in Gary McGann’s costumes. You can be sure that dozens of little girls got crushes on him when they saw this opera.

McGann also designed the sets, with touches of Art Nouveau inspiration that recall (for this viewer, anyway) another Santa Claus origin story, the novel by L. Frank Baum. Sets and costumes are sumptuous, imaginative, and (like the rest of this opera) often great fun. (Those toys! Those dancing tables!) McGann’s work is one more reason to be grateful that this production was recorded on video, so that we can see not only how beautiful the designs are, but also how beautifully they functioned in the service of Paul Curran’s staging. Really, Curran couldn’t have done a better job of overseeing a production that shows off this opera to its best advantage; the physicality of the Elves and Queen Sophine, for example, is thoroughly thought out, and it shines brightly.

Need I point out that the DVD would make a great Christmas present?

Mark Adamo.

*NOTE: Mark has devised names for the Elves like the names of no elves you’ve heard before, as if they’re some extraterrestrial language.

1 comment:

John Feather said...

I was surprised at how delightful this work was. I did love the sets and costumes, but I hope their elaborateness doesn't prevent other companies from doing this work. Story and music work so well, I bet it would still delight in a smaller scale production.