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A New Nutcracker from Opera San Jose

San Jose
Opera San Jose, Montgomery Theatre
11/13/1999 -  and 14*, 16, 18, 20, 21, 23, 26, 27, and 28, November, 2 and 5, December
Craig Bohmler: The Tale of the Nutcracker
Suzan Hanson/Sandra Rubalcava (Marie), Brandon Jovanovich/Thomas Truhitte (The Nutcracker), Constantinos Yiannoudes/Roberto Perlas Gomez (Drosselmeir), Christopher Dickerson/Clifton Romig (Father), Janara Kellerman/Patrice Houston (Mother), Noel Carey/Jonathan Amores (Fred)
Orchestra and Chorus of Opera San Jose, Barbara Day Turner (Conductor)
Yefim Maizel (Stage Director)

Decidedly tonal and unabashedly tuneful, Craig Bohmler's new opera, The Tale of the Nutcracker is an operatic setting of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story best known from Tchaikovsky's popular ballet. This new opera, commissioned and premiered by Opera San Jose, focuses on Marie and her transition from little girl to young adulthood. Themes about the passage of time, the significance of dreams and letting go of childhood are all used to give the story a psychological dimension. Unfortunately, in Daniel Helfgot's libretto, these themes are not so much woven into the story as they are applied on top, and with a heavy hand. When at the end of the opera, one of the characters says, "The lesson is ended", that's just how it feels. This Tale spends far too much time lecturing about the themes rather than telling the story and trusting in the audience's ability to perceive the ideas within it.
Perhaps in an attempt to be politically correct, perhaps in an attempt to make the opera have a more than seasonal appeal, the Christmas holiday is never mentioned. This despite the fact that it is clearly a wintertime holiday party in which adults and children gather to exchange gifts and eat festive little desserts. The careful avoidance becomes more a distraction, leaving on wondering why there is no decorated tree and the decorations consist of exactly one colorful paper draping across the entrance.
Indeed, much of the production was not up to the company's usual standards. For some inexplicable reason, the setting has been updated to the 1950's, though aside from the costumes, there seems to be little purpose. And Jean-Francois Revon's settings range from the creative to the pedestrian. His fantasy landscape for the dream world, with it's tree-like sculptures of clock wheels and springs works well and Allison Connor's white and cream costumes for the scene look splendid. But the main setting in the living room of Marie's home is poorly laid out and provides for little blocking variety.
That said, there is much to enjoy about the opera, starting with the music. Bohmler's facile, accessible, melodic score takes advantage of operatic conventions with arias, ensembles, duets, choruses and the like. Bohmler responds to the storytelling aspects of the opera with music of a higher quality than the segments of didacticism that occur throughout. His scoring is colorful, inventive and confident. The small orchestra delivers plenty of sound, occasionally more than the young singers can ride over.
The opera appears to have its eye on being accessible for other small companies to produce. In addition to the small orchestra, the number of vocal roles is kept to a minimum, just six. As is the company's practice, the roles are double cast.
In the central role of Marie, Sandra Rubalcava captured the essence of a girl on the verge of womanhood. Convincingly youthful with flashes of alluring femininity, Rubalcava's light, pure soprano fit the role superbly. In addition to having the right vocal color for the role, Rubalcava has a solid technical basis with an easy top, good projection and clear, unforced diction.
Thomas Truhitte's tenor, with its warm, baritonal middle, sounded appropriately manly and stalwart. Aside from a few top notes that were dry and squeezed, he handled the upper range with considerable success. Many passages are written in the upper voice and Truhitte managed to given them the requisite fullness of tone and firm support without forcing.
Roberto Perlas Gomez's naturally energetic presence seemed constricted as the elderly Drosselmeir (now called Uncle Drossy), but he played the role convincingly and his singing was keenly focused and warmly resonant. Burdened with the bulk of the opera's pedantic discourses on dreams and growing up, the role, for all its length, has less satisfying music that other roles. But Gomez compensated with a charming, paternal presence and warm rapport with the children, Marie and Fred.
The roles of the Mother and Father, here played by Patrice Houston and Clifton Romig, are sketchily drawn, but each has moments in the spotlight. Houston was very much the mother hen, clucking over her children, chiding them gently and pecking at her husband. As the Father, Clifton Romig's wooly bass had a disturbing wobble for so young a singer, but his portrayal had just the right blend of gruffness and warmth and his relationships with his wife and children were neatly delineated.
As the you brat of a brother, Fred, boy soprano Jonathan Amores was too light-voiced to be heard at times, but in his solo passages exhibited a sweet, natural sound. And he seemed to relish getting to play the part, dashing about on stage with boyish zest.
In directing the production, Yefim Maizel had a few good ideas and the crowd scenes are deftly handled. But too often the principals seem in need of a stronger hand in order to bring out their best qualities and give their characters more individuality and life.
The Tale of the Nutcracker may not be the greatest opera written at the end of the century, but it has the potential to become a popular favorite deserving of frequent productions given a reworked libretto and a more satisfying staging. Bohmler clearly has the gifts and technique for writing satisfying vocal music and dramatically vital scores. In supporting him in this commission, Opera San Jose is making a significant contribution both to the San Jose community and the opera community at large.

Kelly Snyder



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