Musical monotony prevents San Francisco Opera’s “Secret Garden” from blooming

March 03, 2013
By Lisa Hirsch

Sarah Shafer and Scott Joiner in San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Nolan Gasser’s “The Secret Garden.” Photo by Peter DaSilva

Nolan Gasser’s The Secret Garden, with a libretto by playwright and novelist Carey Harrison, was something of a stealth commission by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, with no advance word that the work was in progress before the 2012-13 season was announced. At that time, general director David Gockley described The Secret Garden as “a family-friendly work representing San Francisco Opera’s commitment to involve more families, children, and parents in repertoire that is attractive and entertaining.”

Gockley has commissioned more new operas than any American opera administrator, and expanding the audience, especially by getting the attention of children and youth, is a touchstone for performing arts organizations everywhere. The Secret Garden, which opened Friday night at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is a crowd-pleasing and attractive addition to the repertory, though not without some significant flaws.

The opera is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1912 novel, a tale of two 10-year-olds, simultaneously neglected and spoiled, who meet and heal themselves with the power of nature, by reviving the eponymous garden. Harrison’s libretto hews closely to the story line of the original, though some of the changes are unnecessary and perhaps damaging to the effectiveness of the opera, by shifting some weight from the children to the adults. The invalid Colin Craven’s distant father Archibald is somewhat more present in the opera than the novel. Colin’s moral recovery and increasing physical strength don’t happen gradually over the course of the opera, but are instead timed with his father’s return from traveling, perhaps the most serious issue.

The entire Sowerby family, originally poor Yorkshire cottagers, seems to have gotten an economic upgrade, softening the stark class differences that are so obvious in Burnett. And the gruff gardener Ben Weatherstaff, whose greatest significance is his connection to Colin’s dead mother and her garden, here becomes the opera’s comic relief.

The most problematic issue with the libretto, however, is that it is cast almost entirely as conversation, with just one short aria, one brief duet, and a single ensemble, all falling late in the opera. Gasser responds to this with music that is relentlessly cheery and, in fact, generally relentless. Once it starts, the music hardly varies in tempo and pacing, with perhaps one significant climax, deep in the second act, and no moments of repose. The plot line offers many opportunities for musical variety, in the spookiness of the giant Misselthwaite Manor, the bleakness of the moors and the garden at the outset, or as the children’s personalities are transformed, but by and large Gasser misses all of them.

The score does have its virtues, and they are significant. Gasser is a virtuoso orchestrator, getting a notable range of sonorities out of a nine-person ensemble playing violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, piccolo, oboe, English horn, French horn, trumpet, percussion, and piano. And the ongoing melodic lines are pretty and extremely singable, setting the text effectively and clearly.

An exceptional cast has been assembled for this premiere production, and they do a terrific job with the score. Sarah Shafer, still a voice student at Curtis but with a burgeoning professional career, plays Mary Lennox, bringing a soaring lyric soprano to the part. She is tiny and, especially in the first act,  reasonably successful in creating the illusion of being ten years old. To the extent that she misses, it’s because her movements aren’t consistently childish, for which director Jose Maria Condemi must take part of the blame.

Thirteen-year-old Michael Kepler Meo returns to the stage as a tenor, following several years of performing as a boy soprano. A stunning Miles (Turn of the Screw) in Los Angeles two years ago, he is an entirely believable Colin. That his voice has not quite settled into its new range adds to the effectiveness of his portrayal, and he does a good job of taking Colin from spoiled invalid to burgeoning athlete.

Scott Joiner sings a hearty, jaunty Dickon Sowerby with a lovely tenor, appropriately heavier than Meo’s.  Adler Fellow Ao Li, baritone, is delightfully gruff Ben. Bass-baritone Philippe Sly, also an Adler Fellow, is a touching Archibald; as the children heal, so does this character, and Sly subtly puts across his blossoming.

Adler Fellows Marina Harris, Erin Johnson, and Laura Krumm sing beautifully in the smaller roles, with Krumm a particularly charming Martha Sowerby.

Visual designer Naomie Kremer, making her San Francisco Opera debut, has created a visually sumptuous series of projected backgrounds and videos in place of physical sets. The India scenes contrast nicely with those set in England, and in the much longer English sequences, you can see the garden grow from rundown and neglected to lushly flowering. Her Misselthwaite scenes are also exceptional, dim and haunted. Perhaps her only misstep is the slightly scary, golden eagle-sized butterfly slowly flapping its wings at the close of the opera, an unfortunate distraction.

Condemi directs in straightforward and unfussy fashion. His blocking is solid, and he’s generally successful in creating appropriate movement styles for each of the characters, apart from the English ladies air-kissing in the first scene. Christopher Maravich’s lighting design works well with Kremer’s visuals, and Kristi Johnson’s lovely costumes do as well, though the Indian outfits seem somewhat oversimplified compared to reality.

Conductor Sara Jobin does a fine job, neatly balancing the voices and ensemble in the difficult acoustics of Zellerbach and deftly bringing out the many colors of the score.

The Secret Garden runs through March 10, with four performances remaining.  510-642-9988

One Response to “Musical monotony prevents San Francisco Opera’s “Secret Garden” from blooming”

  1. Posted Mar 04, 2013 at 1:46 pm by Jeff Dunn

    Thank you, Lisa, for this fine, detailed review.

    The central issues you bring up, the lack of arias in the first act, and the “relentlessness” of the music, have a positive side, perhaps, as an explanation for the amazingly rapt attention to which an auditorium of children devoted to the performance. One reviewer reported the children behaved better than the adults. Why is that?

    There are a lot of plot points in the first act the keep the attention, but would be delayed by arias. The only one I could see being cut to allow for more aria time involves the three times Mary follows Colin’s voice, which could be condensed to two. There IS an aria in the first act, Martha’s singing about the Yorkshire moors. I liked the subject matter, but I think it should be recrafted to sound more like an aria.

    Finally, I would suggest that the “relentlessness” befits the higher metabolism of children and keeps them better glued to what’s happening on stage. We oldsters require more rest. I think this opera has legs and will be a big hit, especially if Gasser makes a few wise revisions.

    I would also like to put in a plug for the letter-writing duet, which had me in tears both times I heard it.