Operatic world premieres are always a risk. But when the Santa Fe Opera co-commissioned The Thirteenth Child, the first of three over a three-year period, they knew what they were getting: The work had already been completed and a CD was even in the works. It went on sale in June, a month before opening night.
And while this was Becky and David Starobin’s first libretto, it was 70-year-old composer Poul Ruders’ fifth opera; his best-known prior work is The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been staged with great success by the Royal Danish Opera, the English National Opera, the Minnesota Opera and earlier this year by the Boston Lyric Opera.
One has to wonder, then, how it went so wrong. Attractive as some of its aspects were individually, they failed to add up to much, especially in the crucial second act, which lacked suspense and just about any theatrical magic.
Ruders and the Starobins started with what seemed a good foundation. It was built on a lesser-known Grimm’s fairy tale, complete with a paranoid king and mournful queen, an evil advisor, 12 lost brothers, a handsome love interest and a heroine princess’s journey to make all the wrong right. Also on board: a text that’s easy to follow; attractive, tonal arias for the good characters and effectively atonal music for the bad guys; and a running time of less than two hours, including intermission.
Ultimately, though, it felt more like the outline of an opera than a fully realized piece. Perhaps most at fault was the libretto, which abandoned one of the basic tenets of good storytelling: to primarily spin the tale through action, not dialogue. Here, important exposition and moments of potential suspense were raced through or skipped altogether, preventing the audience from connecting with the characters – or even understanding the trajectory of the story. The score also failed to provide enough momentum and lacked a cumulative buildup of emotions tied to action.
It all starts before Princess Lyra’s birth, when her father, King Hjarne, was convinced by the power-mad Drokan that the princes were planning to usurp his throne. Hjarne then decrees that the boys all will be killed if the newest child is a girl. Eighteen years apparently have passed when the second scene opens at the king’s funeral and Lyra’s long-yearned-for reunion with her mother.
As the queen is dying, she makes her daughter promise to find her brothers, who we learn the queen sent away before harm could come to them at the hands of their father.
Scene three, which begins after the intermission, sees Lyra searching for her the long-lost brothers in a dark, sinister forest. This quest should test her and lead to both personal growth and audience empathy, but we see none of it. The following recognition and reconciliation with the youngest brother Benjamin zips by so quickly and seems to mean so little to them both that it has an unintended comic quality.
Much could be forgiven if The Thirteenth Child’s climactic scene had some wow moments of theatrical magic and some “Oh, no!” moments of genuine tension. It showed promise, when Drokan decided to cut to the chase and kill Lyra, which would make him ruler of the kingdom. Then the burgeoning suspense fizzles out with a quick succession of events: Drokan vanquished, the youngest brother dead and Lyra suddenly paired off with the mysterious Frederic, whom she barely seems to have met.
Tamara Mumford turned in the most impressive performance as Queen Gertrude, with her warm, rich mezzo-soprano effectively deployed throughout a very wide range. Bradley Garvin’s incisive bass-baritone communicated Drokan’s rage, expressed in the score’s most challenging passages, including some eerie falsetto singing. Former apprentices Jessica E. Jones, who played a secondary role here in 2017’s lauded world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and Joshua Dennis looked smashing as Lyra and Frederic. Dennis sang with elegance and style. Jones’ singing wasn’t at the same level as that of her colleagues: Here voice sometimes had a nasal quality and didn’t have much bloom on the top. Former apprentice David Leigh’s woolly bass plumbed subterranean depths as the paranoid king and current apprentice tenor Bille Bruley offered a winning portrayal of the youngest son Benjamin.
Scenic designer Alexander Dodge’s unit set blended elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and M.C. Escher’s medieval interiors – a dilapidated castle tower on its side, with stairways leading to nowhere. York Kennedy’s lighting designs and Aaron Rhyne’s projections managed to create atmosphere and emotional reaction far more effectively than most of the storytelling, aside from one or two heavy-handed moments, such as the snakes that appeared along with the reptilian Drokan. Rita Ryack’s costumes were terrific, easily one of the most spectacular aspects of the production.
Conductor Paul Daniel drew committed playing from the orchestra, which truly accompanied the text-forward approach to vocal lines and then cut loose in the full-throated interludes between scenes. The chorus of apprentice singers sang well, with its male members offering amusing characterizations of the 12 brothers as adults. The children’s chorus provided great charm as the rambunctious youngsters in Act 1.
It’s an unfortunate turn, but perhaps the 2020 commission (the SFO’s 17th since 1956) will fare better: an operatic adaptation of David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play M. Butterfly, set to music by Huang Ruo and with libretto by Hwang.