‘Juniper Tree,’ Terrifying (In Terrific Way), Brings Grimm Fable To Opera

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Puppets, infanticide, cannibalism and reincarnation, oh my: Director John DiDonna goes all in for this Brothers Grimm tale brought to life by Opera Orlando, to music by Philip Glass and Robert Moran. (Photos courtesy of Ashleigh Ann Gardner)

ORLANDO — Opera Orlando, a scrappy young company that’s keeping this elaborate and expensive art form alive in Central Florida, concluded its 2023-24 season May 10-11 with a Victorian-style black-box production of The Juniper Tree at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Sumptuous costumes and makeup and oversized puppets took center stage in the production, handled with flair by stage director John DiDonna. With a libretto based on the horror-fantasy tale of infanticide, cannibalism, and reincarnation by the Brothers Grimm, The Juniper Tree, which premiered in 1985, is an engaging hybrid of opera and musical theater. The score by Philip Glass and Robert Moran is a rare collaboration with a co-composer in Glass’ long career in theater and opera. The production was a terrific, at times terrifying, coup — not often do you see a boy decapitated in light opera — for Opera Orlando. 

The company started in 2016 with a modest annual budget of $250,000 that has grown to a sturdier $2.4 million. It is well worth following, especially since the move of its mainstage presentations to Steinmetz Hall in 2022, starting with Rigoletto. It now presents three operas each season at Steinmetz and two at the smaller Pugh Theater, the 294-seater where The Juniper Tree was staged. (Both venues are in the Dr. Phillips Center.) 

The evil stepmother (mezzo-soprano Linda Maritza Collazo) tells a gory tale and cooks a morbid stew.

Arthur Yorinks’ libretto for the two-act, 85-minute stage piece tells of the macabre, supernatural happenings in the lives of a childless couple. The wife, who longs to be a mother, sings to the birds in a nearby juniper tree as though they were her children. She later gives birth to a boy and dies. The father remarries and has a daughter, but the new wife is jealous of her stepson because he’s the family’s sole heir. She concocts a plan to behead him, making her own daughter believe she’s the one who killed him. When the husband comes back from an arduous day, his wife cooks the boy into a stew and feeds it to him. The daughter saves the bones and buries them under the juniper tree, from which a bird appears. The reincarnated son/bird brings back gifts for his father and sister, kills his stepmother by dropping a millstone on her head, and finally reappears as his former human self.

The opera featured great singers, but what made the greatest impression were the 10-foot, tree-like giant puppets, with nubby barks and roots. Each was worn with a harness by a puppeteer who controlled the head and forward movement, while two others controlled the arms and hands. The puppetry, designed and fabricated by Nic Parks and Orlando Family Stage — a company that recently inherited the programs of Michelee Puppets, with which Opera Orlando had collaborated on The Secret River in 2021. Also featured was a stupendous, condor-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, representing the reborn son. A puppeteer wore a supporting frame like a hang glider and flapped the wings all around the theater.  

Doomed father and children: Josè Cuartas, Lang Cao, Laura Corina Sanders

DiDonna’s staging and Grant Preisser’s scenic design immersed the audience in an almost in-the-round setting, with elaborate lighting design, strobes, and smoky air that diffused the multi-colored lights, punctuating the fantasy elements of the story. The visuals were augmented by dancing and intricate costumes from the Victorian troupe Phantasmagoria. It was not always clear how the steampunk dresses — beautifully extravagant with layered lace, flares, and tight corsets — and the twirling ribbons and slithering bodies contributed to the story, but the cumulative visual spectacle was undeniably compelling, especially with the hypnotic score churning out from the keyboard-heavy chamber ensemble placed backstage.

Though there were scenes in which the full cast and ensemble cluttered the stage, the design was most theatrically effective when arranged symmetrically and hierarchically, such as when the juniper tree puppet, flanked by the hand puppeteers, stood tall behind the stepmother as she brushed her daughter’s hair, her hand motions mirrored by those of the tree. 

Glass and Moran took turns composing the music for each alternating scene, though there are shared themes — most notably the catchy Bird Song that forms the high point of act one in wordless vocalise and returns in act two as the repetitious “Mama killed me, Papa ate me” refrain. It got a few chuckles at the Friday evening performance I attended, maybe a bit of unintentional comic relief from the ghastly plotline. Conductor Geoffrey Loff, making his company debut, kept the keyboards, woodwinds, strings, horn, and percussion — members of Alterity Chamber Orchestra — spinning out Glass’ familiar swirls and mathematically arpeggiated chords, though there were patchy moments in the balancing of the sound.  

Soprano Laura Corina Sanders, as the daughter who saves the day by burying her brother’s bones under a juniper tree, from which a magic bird appears to make things right.

The youth company of Opera Orlando had a stellar entry in the prologue, singing the little hatchlings’ calls in onomatopoeic monosyllables with Mama Bird (Lauren Graber). As the mother/wife, Lauren Williams made the best of her relatively short singing time before her character dies. She projected a mellow soprano with warm, comfortably undulating vibrato. In between Glass’ narcotic whirls, she animated the moments when she didn’t sing with empathic acting and facial expressions, including at the end of the opera when she reunites with her son, who was played by Lang Cao, a member of the youth company. As the evil stepmother, Linda Collazo sang in a dusky mezzo-soprano, displaying a multifaceted sensitivity through her commanding vocals and acting. She exhibited the viciousness of her character, snarling at her stepson and manipulating her own daughter.   

Soprano Lauren Williams animated her moments, even when she didn’t sing.

Laura Corina Sanders portrayed the daughter with a honeyed soprano and different gradations of a sweet, amber tone that blended harmoniously with Collazo’s darker voice. As the father, baritone Jose Cuartas was dapper, faithful to his role, which is thinner than that of the mother, and, especially, the stepmother — an underlying weakness of the opera. Credited as “vendor” in the playbill, David Soto Zambrana had a surprising star turn with a great tenor timbre and flexibility that made him delightful as the goldsmith, cobbler, and miller — three minor characters that briefly appear in act two when the son/bird flies over the village and endears himself to the townsfolk.  

Opera Orlando’s 2024-25 season opens in October with Verdi’s Macbeth, at Steinmetz. In May 2025, at the Pugh, the company will stage Treemonisha, a 1911 opera by ragtime composer Scott Joplin that has had a series of recent revivals. Judging from this Juniper Tree, it will be a highlight of the season in Orlando.