By Mike Greenberg
DALLAS — Virtually from its inception in 1956, the Dallas Opera has been the dowager duchess of American opera, aristocratic in its casting, production standards, and traditional repertoire. Extending the tradition? Leave that to those upstarts in — sniff — Houston.
But things have changed. Houston Grand Opera, which amassed an implausibly ambitious record of world and American premieres during the three-decade reign of general director David Gockley, pulled in its horns after he left for San Francisco Opera in 2005. Then, in 2010, Keith Cerny became Dallas Opera’s general director and set out to transform the dowager duchess into a blooming, energetic youth.
Evidence? Consider the first weekend in December, when Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus was unveiled as the Dallas Opera’s third world premiere of 2015. (It was preceded by Joby Talbot’s Everest, last winter, and Jake Heggie’s Great Scott in the fall.) Along similarly noteworthy lines, that same weekend the company’s inaugural Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors culminated in a showcase concert featuring six conducting fellows from around the world and a splendid group of singers.
The Great American Christmas Opera is, of course, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. In nearly every way, up until the final treacly minutes, Becoming Santa Claus is the anti-Amahl.
In Adamo’s libretto, the future Santa Claus is a singularly unpleasant, self-absorbed young Prince Claus. Embittered by his father’s absences, he seeks solace in expensive but ultimately disappointing toys. He takes no joy in his impending 13th birthday party until his mother, the sorceress-queen Sophine, tells him his three favorite uncles have promised to be there. Alas, those uncles — the kings Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, no less — have a change of plans. Out of spite, Claus decides to outdo the gifts his uncles are carrying to the mysterious child in Bethlehem.
Channeling Steve Jobs, the prince inspires and hectors his servant elves to develop insanely great toys. They succeed, but too late. When the Prince’s reindeer-powered sleigh arrives in Bethlehem, his uncles and the holy family are gone. A Donkey, who had observed the manger scene, tells Prince Claus the newborn child had no interest in the kings’ presents, but only in their presence. Suddenly struck with insight and empathy, the Prince decides to bring gifts to “Any child who’s abandoned, Or who fears there’s no one left.” The Donkey turns out to be the Prince’s father, who had been “banished” by Sophine as punishment for neglecting Prince Claus. Sophine now reconstitutes him (mostly), and the family is happily reunited as children ring handbells in the Winspear Opera House aisles. The, um, inspirational ending is probably necessary for a Christmas-season opera, but those last few minutes are rather like a topping of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry on a pretty good beer.
Though not in the same league as Adamo’s first-rate Lysistrata, an opera of great depth and clear focus, Becoming Santa Claus affords some distinct pleasures. The libretto, sparkling and clever despite its verbosity, is the work of a superior wordsmith. The music is appealing, inventive, and varied, drawing energy from assorted pop idioms while maintaining a consistent aesthetic. The bustling, sassy music for the elves regularly delights, as do the overture and intermezzi. The music for Prince Claus and Queen Sophine is more dramatic and sometimes more lyrical in character, but too often wants a more direct melodic arc or less complication in the orchestra. The best lyrical moment is reserved for the Donkey, whose recollection of the manger scene is simple and moving.
Running an hour and three-quarters, with no intermission, Becoming Santa Claus is a long sit even for adults. Trimming 15 minutes would help to make it more agreeable for children.
In the Dec. 6 matinee performance, tenor Jonathan Blalock made a convincing Prince Claus, finding the right vocal colors to convey the boy’s cynicism, frustration, and woundedness; even a slightly pinched high register worked in the role’s favor. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera’s Queen Sophine nicely balanced regal and maternal qualities.
Both leads were sometimes submerged by the busy orchestra. Bass Matt Boehler sang majestically as the Donkey and a Messenger. Among the elves, special notice goes to the Yan of soprano Hila Plittman, undaunted by a toy-touting aria that reached a high E and spent an unseemly amount of time above the staff. Her fellow elves, all spirited and fully secure, were mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer, tenor Keith Jameson, and bass Kevin Burdette.
Paul Curran’s stage direction, Gary McCann’s sets and costumes, and Driscoll Otto’s animated projections were a torrent of sophisticated wit. A dancing banquet table responded with distaste when Prince Claus put his feet up on her. The animated reindeer stood on their hind legs, forelegs above their heads, to pass through airport security. The Dallas Opera Orchestra sounded a little scrappy in the overture but soon found its footing. The production was stylishly conducted by music director Emmanuel Villaume, who, in common with the overwhelming preponderance of conductors at major opera companies and orchestras, is male.
Indeed, among the hundreds of opera productions I have seen in 35 years of reviewing, I can’t recall one that was conducted by a woman. The record for concerts by major orchestras is only slightly better. Yet approximate gender equality among orchestra musicians indicates that musical ability does not depend on possession of a spare Y chromosome. The Institute for Women Conductors stems from general director Cerny’s conviction that “there is still much work to be done to counteract a persistent gender imbalance — and, in some cases, bias — that still exists in the conducting field.”
More than 100 conductors from 27 countries applied for the inaugural institute. Six “fellows” and four observers were chosen to participate, all expenses paid, in the nine-day program. The curriculum was partly musical — master classes with Villaume and Dallas Opera principal guest conductor Nicole Paiement — but also covered career-building topics with Alec C. Treuhaft, a former executive with major artist management firms, and others with expertise in the extra-musical aspects of the industry.
For the final concert, each conductor was assigned to lead one instrumental and two vocal numbers. All the conductors evinced solid technical chops, and all showed a mix of strengths and weaknesses in their stylistic sympathies — a normal condition for conductors in the early stages of their careers. For example, the Australian Jessica Gethin, principal conductor of the Perth Symphony Orchestra, led an agile, crisp, and lively account of an aria from Handel’s Semele, and she spun fluid lines in a duet from Menotti’s The Consul. But in the overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino, her meticulous craft left little room for warmth or excitement.
The story was much the same for the other conducting fellows — Jennifer Condon of Australia and Germany, Natalie Murray Beale of the United Kingdom, Anna Skryleva of Russia and Germany, and Stephanie Rhodes and Lidiya Yankovskaya of the United States.
The Dallas Opera did not scrimp on the voices for the institute concert. Four of the singers were also serving as covers for Becoming Santa Claus, but they were quite ready for prime time. The evening’s showstopper was the aria “En proie à la tristesse” from Rossini’s Le comte Ory, in a high-gloss performance by soprano Stacey Tappan, with supple, attentive support from Condon and the Dallas Opera Orchestra.
Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.