Minnesota Opera offers compelling premiere based on classic Cold War thriller

March 13, 2015
By Richard Boyum
Brenda Harris and Matthew Worth in Kevin Puts' "The Manchurian Candidate" at Minnesota Opera.. Photo: Michal Daniel

Brenda Harris and Matthew Worth in Kevin Puts’ “The Manchurian Candidate” at Minnesota Opera.. Photo: Michal Daniel

Contemporary operas seem to work best when they have a powerful story that grabs hold and will not let go of the people in the seats.  The Manchurian Candidate by composer Kevin Puts takes the dark 1950 political thriller novel of 1950 by Richard Condon and certainly gave the audience an intense night in the theater last Saturday night at Minnesota Opera in its world premiere.

Condon’s novel tells the story of a woman who attempts to propel her Joseph McCarthy-like husband to the presidency of the United States.  She uses her son to kill without self-knowledge to take out the obstacles in that grab for power.  The son, Raymond, has been programmed in a prisoner of war camp to become an assassin.  His mother is ostensibly his Communist controller but soon shows herself as someone who will use any means and sacrifice anyone to achieve her goal.

Running just under 2 1/2 hours, the opera has nineteen rapid scene changes that drive the story made famous by the novel and the 1962 film of the same name starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury.

The composer is a master of mixing styles in an almost cinematic fashion yet avoids “soundtrack” pitfalls.  Two characters meet on a train and the music evokes a memory of Benjamin Britten’s music for the 1936 British documentary Night Mail. When Eleanor Iselin sings to her son as she destroys Raymond’s world and his life, soprano Brenda Harris is in her element as the music rises to 19th-century grand opera lushness.

The score by Puts (whose previous opera was Silent Night in 2011) and the conducting by Michael Christie provided absolute clarity of the words by librettist Mark Campbell. This was a rare instance where the supertitles were almost never needed.  The forty-plus orchestra has some soaring moments, but never when someone was singing an important line.

The Manchurian Candidate is an opera but has characteristics of a play and of a sung-through musical. The music is plot driven without a single digression or break in the story line.  There are seven assassinations by Raymond, all of which occur in full view on stage.  The opera implies that Eleanor Iselin was abused by her father and that she in turn sexually abuses her son.

Matthew Worth sings Raymond, the time bomb who has been turned into an assassin.  Worth’s baritone conveys the tightly wound, damaged mind of the ex-soldier yet was also plaintive and lyrical when recalling his youthful meeting with his bride-to-be Jocelyn.  Jocelyn was beautifully sung by Angela Mortellaro.

Brenda Harris sings Raymond’s mother from hell and his KGB controller, Eleanor Iselin.   Worth and Harris sing to a plot-driven point yet have solo turns where her operatic voice reveals its full dimension.  Harris has made a career of mainstream operatic repertoire yet can clearly show her technical chops to superb advantage in new works when she is given the chance.

Of special note was the performance by Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco, who displayed a fine, cleanly projected tenor.

The set by Robert Brill was a black box with a glassed-in observation balcony on the rear wall, populated   by silent sinister observers.  There was a sliding warehouse door beneath.  The light source for the stage was like the large frame with lights over a boxing ring.  High above the lighting frame were three video screens with projected images to indicate the place.  Simple props set the scene efficiently as with two train coach seats and a couch, chair coffee table, television set for Raymond’s living room.

Director Kevin Newbury is spot on in charting the increasing intensity and rapid development of the story.  The only lapse was a critical breakdown in the narrative at the opera’s conclusion when it is unclear if Captain Marco has deprogrammed Raymond from the attempt he is to make assassinating the presidential candidate at the national convention, or if Raymond is finally seeing gaps in his programmed mind.  And at the very climax of the opera, we do not see Raymond but only hear a third gunshot after he has killed two unexpected targets.  Perhaps the ambiguity is clear enough for the audience to draw an inference.

The Manchurian Candidate is an inspired night of operatic theater.  The political diatribes of the McCarthy-like character are completely recognizable to anyone who has experienced a national election in the past ten years.

The Ordway Theater’s 1,900 seats were full at Saturday night’s premiere and the audience notably more youthful than most opera performances, an encouraging sign for opera and the Minnesota company.

There are two performances remaining 7:30 p.m. Saturday March 14 and 2 p.m. Sunday March 15.  www.mnopera.org

Richard Boyum is a retired teacher in Chicago.  He heard his first opera in a Met broadcast as a teenager listening to WCCO from Minneapolis.  Since then he has been attending operas all over North America and Europe.

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