On Friday night, the master chefs of Wolf Trap Opera served up a fable, Bastianello, and a fairy tale, The Juniper Tree; the first about realizing what is important in life and the second from a Grimm fairy tale exploring the darker forces with which humans must contend. They are complementary only by being magical stories about marriage and by sharing many of the performers. The operas are modern and not members of the traditional repertoire. Bastienello (music by John Musto and libretto by Mark Campbell) premiered in 2008 and The Juniper Tree (music by Philip Glass and Robert Moran and libretto by Arthur Yorinks) in 1985. I reviewed the basic outline of the stories prior to attending, but had no idea what to expect in terms of music or staging. I can report that I heartily enjoyed both WTO’s productions; I recommend you attend this double bill both for the pleasure and the opportunity to expand the range of your opera experiences. And Wolf Trap Opera’s vivacious young singers will make you glad you came by adding a satisfying dollop of fun to the opera world’s nouveau cuisine.
To delve a little deeper into these two productions, we must start with the staging. Bastianello presents the story of a young groom who becomes disenchanted with his new bride and family and leaves vowing to only return if he can find six people as foolish as they are. Bringing fables and fairy tales to a stage is challenging and requires creativity and imagination on the part of the director and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief. We can mentally personalize the stories of fairy tales we read to seduce ourselves, but in staged productions, the director’s vision is what must enable our immersion into the story. Both operas were composed to be presented in concert halls with minimal sets, but for me, Bastianello still somewhat misfired on this point. There was a minimal set with different scenes simply being held in different locations on the stage; initially it had the feel of skit night on a college campus, but perhaps this was intended. The potential for humor of a typically dysfunctional family in the aftermath of a wedding and out of wine was mildly realized, but stronger character motivations would have helped, especially for the husband whose outburst over his family attitudes, or maybe the fact that all the wine was gone, seemed to come out of nowhere. Nonetheless, the lesson of the fable was nicely realized in the scene by the lake where a farmer mistakes the reflection of the moon in the water for his wife who had drowned there earlier.
I thought director Schlather‘s staging and scenic/costume designer Blake Palmer’s sets and costumes were much more effective in The Juniper Tree. This is Wolf Trap Opera’s synopsis of the opera: “This famous Grimm fairy tale tells of a wicked stepmother who murders her stepson. The boy’s sister buries her brother’s bones under a juniper tree, and the child’s spirit returns as a singing bird who wreaks vengeance on the stepmother before being restored to life with his father and sister.” Now take that and turn it into a convincing opera! And yet, for me, it was in this production that Wolf Trap Opera put it all together, the sets, the staging, the lighting, the performers, and the music in synchrony achieved for its audience, at least briefly, transcendence, where you lose yourself, totally absorbed in the experience, and lifted to a higher place of awareness. From the beginning I was immediately drawn in by the costumes and the dark, slow march of the birds onto the stage in step with Glass’ music and who would have thought that a stage dominated by a long, rectangular table could draw the audience into foreboding and then deliverance by a slow undrapping and then drapping of this central object? Minimal staging can be effective. Special kudos to all involved in The Juniper Tree.
So, let’s talk more about those involved. With modern opera, I am always apprehensive whether I will like the music; some stretch my limits in terms of what I can appreciate. This proved not the case for these two, even though I was particularly anxious about Bastianello because I knew nothing of composer John Musto. However, I found myself really liking his music and it served the opera well. Interestingly, the score for The Juniper Tree was assembled by sections assigned by the composers' agreement to either Mr. Glass or Mr. Moran. I thought their work fit together and complimented each other well. The score sounded a bit more like it came from a movie or broadway musical rather than what one might expect of an opera, but again was quite pleasing and effective in supporting the action on stage. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and her ensemble of musicians were excellent.
In Bastianello, Filene Young Artists Jonas Hacker, Shea Owens, Summer Hassan, Richard Ollarsaba, and Zoie Reams combined to present twelve characters in three scenes. Each sang their parts convincingly. Mr. Hacker and Mr. Owens perhaps shone brightest in this opera. Summer Hassan appeared in both operas, in The Juniper Tree as the wife; she was joined by fellow young artists Ben Edquist as husband, Megan Mikailovna Samarin as son, Annie Rosen as stepmother, and Madison Leonard as daughter. Talented and professional, they were all good. Ms. Rosen especially impressed me with her singing and by giving a menacing edge to the stepmom and Ms. Samarin for singing effectively in a pants role, but for me the stand out in this opera was Ms. Hassan. if I'm being honest, I was a little disappointed with her Musetta in last year’s La Boheme. I had started to take note of her this year in earlier Wolf Trap performances, but in The Juniper Tree, her voice and singing and the music so complemented each other they became magic together. The principal cast members were ably supported by a large contingent of young Wolf Trap Studio Artists in other roles, including choral accompaniment.
I truly admire the Wolf Trap Opera Company for their excellence and their role in developing young operatic talent, but also for the enrichment they provide to Washington area communities. Under the leadership of Kim Pensinger Witman, they annually look beyond the traditional repertoire (except for the singular, annual Filene Center presentation) and bring to life either more modern works or unearth past operatic jewels that have been forgotten. Couple that with the enthusiasm and talent of their outstanding young Filene Artists and their productions are always sure bets for enjoyable entertainment and distinctive arts experiences. Bastianello and The Juniper Tree add to that assessment.
The Fan Experience: My son and I made the dubious choice of having dinner at The Barns instead of attending the pre-opera talk; these talks by Ms. Witman are always informative and helpful in appreciating the opera being presented, though for The Juniper Tree, do have your dinner prior to the opera. The meal service begins an hour and a half before the opera and the pre-opera talk begins an hour prior to the opera performance; by rushing a little you could work in both. Our meals were fine and we especially liked the crafts beers offered to accompany our entree choices. Perhaps because the weather outside was not as warm as usual this time of year, I found the air-conditioning in The Barns to be a bit chilly. The opera crowd at The Barns is typically mainly casually attired, but if you are sensitive to the cold, bring an over-shirt or light sweater with you. As a reminder, parking at The Barns is free and egress after a performance is mercifully much less stressful than dealing with the large crowds leaving performances at the Filene Center. Wolf Trap Opera makes opera as accessible and stress free as it can be done, and oh yes, it makes it fun.
The final two performances of this double bill are Wednesday night, August 16, and Saturday night, August 19. For tickets, click here. You can save on service fees by purchasing your tickets from the Wolf Trap Box Office in person.