THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE
Music by Kevin Puts
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Adapted from the novel by Richard Condon
Conducted by Michael Christie
Directed by Kevin Newburry
Featuring Matthew Worth, Brenda Harris, Leonardo Capalbo, and Daniel Sumegi
Presented by Minnesota Opera
What if everything you knew was a complete and utter lie? What if your actions, your will, your very self, was no longer under your control?
It’s that sweeping sense of paranoia that infects The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon‘s influential 1959 Cold War thriller that has captivated the public’s imagination since its publication. This mind-bending tale of enemies without and within has been adapted before; first with director John Frankenheimer‘s and screenwriter George Axelrod‘s iconic 1962 film adaptation (featuring legendary performances from Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, and an Oscar-nominated turn from Angela Lansbury), then critic and playwright John Lahr‘s stage adaptation in 1992 reset the action within in the shadow of the first Gulf War, and most recently in 2004 when Jonathan Demme’s film version which turned the enemy into a faceless security corporation with designs on the government. And now with Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell‘s operatic adaptation (getting its world premiere courtesy of Minnesota Opera and its New Works Initiative), we have another worthy spin on the tale that matches the original in mood and tone. Puts and Campbell (the same team behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, which had its world premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2011) have managed to create an elegantly jarring, atmospheric opera that is a dazzling work on its own and a dead on adaptation of the original material.
Set in 1960 prior to the Republican National Convention, Korean War hero Raymond Shaw (Matthew Worth) has returned home to the welcoming arms of his scheming mother Eleanor (Brenda Harris) and his loathsome McCarthy-esque stepfather Senator Johnny Iselin (Daniel Sumegi), who is trying to use Raymond’s popularity and recent Medal of Honor win to angle his way into the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination. Meanwhile, Shaw’s platoon mate Ben Marco (Leonardo Capalbo) is having flashbacks to their time in the War that are not lining up. This leads to a conspiracy plot that not only involves the Communists, but threatens to swallow up Islen’s chief rival Senator Thomas Jordan (Christopher Job), his daughter (and Raymond’s ex-girlfriend) Jocelyn (Angela Mortellaro), Ben’s new girlfriend Rosie (Adriana Zabala) and more.
I was surprised and delighted by Mark Campbell’s libretto for the opera. Not only did he manage to keep all of the action of the novel in while incorporating some of the great lines from George Axelrod’s iconic screenplay (such as Eleanor singing about “making martial law seem like anarchy” in the convention scene), he also incorporated pitch black humor into the mix (which aligns with the more satirical tone of Condon’s novel). Even better, the libretto manages to not only tell the story cleanly and efficiently, it is extremely singer friendly in that the lyrics are shaped best for singers to sing every word and have it make sense; a gift that allows Mr. Puts to create some exquisite vocal writing for the cast. As for the score, Mr. Puts is not afraid to bust out pastiche when necessary. From riffing on classic Americana themes (Sousa marches, demented variations of the American national anthem) and 1960s popular music (experimental jazz, commercial jingles, Dixieland, even a deranged conga), all of the music is filtered through a gloriously nightmarish use of repeated ostinati to have it sound recognizable to our ears but unnervingly “off”. One of the best examples of this would be the opening scene set at the “Ladies Garden Club of New Jersey” with its swirling ladies chorus helmed by “Mrs. Lowe” (brought to hilariously nightmarish life by Victoria Vargas). When we revisit this moment two scenes later in one of Marco’s nightmares, the callbacks have been made in the score by riffing on the music in the first scene but sounding even more curdled. Mr. Puts’ orchestrations evoke not only the twelve-tone writing that was in vogue in classical music in the late 1950s but also the film scores of the great Bernard Hermann (in particular his work for Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho). As a happy coincidence, Minnesota Opera’s music director Michael Christie is familiar with the work of Hermann (thanks to his conducting of Hermann’s operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights for the company in 2011), and he uses that familiarity to lead the orchestra in a swooningly atmospheric reading of the score that is sensitive and singer-friendly without sacrificing any of the incisiveness or color of Mr. Puts’ score.
It’s that heady sense of atmosphere that infects all aspects of director Kevin Newbury‘s stage production. Robert Brill‘s ingeniously utilitarian set is a big, industrial black box with a glass enclosed observation deck, which serves as a perfectly neutral dreamscape that turns sunny or garish or utterly nightmarish thanks to Japhy Weidman‘s cinematic lighting design. And attention must be paid to Sean Nieuwenhuis‘ video and projection work which not only brings the Jumbotrons to life on the set but also with some impressive live video feed work on stage. It’s this openness of the setting that allows for Mr. Newbury to achieve more cinematic transitions between the scenes and keep the dream logic going while using subtle details (mostly in the props and Jessica Jahn‘s period-specific costuming) to keep the audience grounded in time and place when necessary and allows the production to veer wildly from realism (the Act II scene at the bar where Raymond’s “programing” is revealed to hilarious effect), to swooning romanticism (the Act I flashback when a young Raymond meets Jocelyn Jordan for the first time, Ben and Rosie’s meet-cute in the train scene), to stinging film noir (Marco’s “Night After Night” aria with its moody lighting), to deranged camp (the Act I conga finale) and whatever else the score and libretto throw at the production with fleetness. All of this coalesces to the great Act II finale set at the Republican National Convention and the tragedy (or victory, depending on who you’re rooting for) that ensues, with Mr. Newbury and company’s clear staging not only ramping up the suspense but making sure that the audience doesn’t miss anything important.
Furthermore Mr. Newbury and Mr. Christie have assembled a lovely cast. Matthew Worth is stunning as Raymond, the stoic center of this tale. His lean and trim baritone easily conveys the tightly-wound tragedy of Raymond’s hyper-controlled existence, but blooms to life when Raymond’s emotions come bubbling up and out of him (in the flashback scene with Jocelyn and in particular his breakdown in his Act II “Lies” aria). On the opposite end of the scale is Leonardo Capalbo, whose spry throbbing tenor is perfect at conveying the jittery nature Ben Marco’s apt paranoia. Brenda Harris uses her incisive silvery soprano voice to convey the morally compromised Eleanor with the ferocity of a jungle cat that is pulling everyone’s strings; veering from cloyingly manipulative (such as her breakfast scene in Act I with Johnny), to rueful (her Act II confrontation with Raymond), to downright thuggish when necessary (in her stunning Act I aria “It’s The Girl” and in her triumphant singing in the Act II finale). As the blustery Johnny Islen, Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi makes great hay of all of the musical in-jokes Mr. Puts puts in the score for the character. Angela Mortarello‘s warm, sunny soprano is put to good use as Jocelyn, turning her into the moral compass of the show. Will Liverman turns the cameo role of fellow soldier Andrew Hanley into a lovely showcase for his expressive voice. And attention must be paid to chorus master Robert Ainsley and the Minnesota Opera chorus who handle the trickier aspects of the score with aplomb.
There were a few problems. Adriana Zabala was a charming Rosie and sounds glorious in her duets with Ben, but her tone tended to get swallowed up by the space (which I lay at the Ordway’s feet; the acoustics of the space has always been tricky for mezzo sopranos and tenors). More problematic for me were the two scenes where Mr. Puts and Mr. Campbell tried to achieve a “split screen” effect on the stage; while they looked great on stage, we lost what the cast was singing due to some muddiness in the scene. While this wasn’t as big of an issue when it is deployed in Act II (as Ben and Rosie are discussing the Raymond problem while Senator Jordan and Jocelyn are celebrating her marriage), it’s a glaring problem when it occurs near the end of Act I. We the audience are so wrapped up in the confrontation between Eleanor and Senator Jordan (thanks to Ms. Harris and Christopher Job singing the pants off of their portion of the scene) that we miss Jocelyn’s very important entrance and scene with Raymond happening at the same (which is a crucial plot point that flew over the audience’s heads).
Ever since it began in 1963 as Center Opera, Minnesota Opera has been on the forefront in developing and championing new modern operatic works. Over its 52 seasons, the acclaimed regional company has presented the world and American premieres of such work as Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Grapes of Wrath, Oliver Knussen’s Where The Wild Things Are, Jonathan Dove’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, Douglas J. Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, and many of the works of Dominick Argento. By recruiting Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell, the company was hoping that the Pulitzer Prize-winning duo would be able to recreate the magic of Silent Night; and as far as I am concerned, they have. Puts and Campbell’s operatic adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate is a taut, suspenseful, yet surprisingly faithful adaptation of one of the most acclaimed political thrillers ever created. And thanks to a strong cast, a superb production by Kevin Newbury, and a nuanced reading of the score by Michael Christie, this is one candidate that gets our vote!
Side Note: If, like I was at the performance I went to, you are able to go to the pre-show chat with chorus master Robert Ainsley, I strongly encourage you to go. Not only does Mr. Ainsley break the opera down and point out what you will hear (such as the Phillip Glass-inspired orchestral patterns in the train scene), he does it with such infectious joy and sly humor that the audience is put in the right headspace for what they are about to witness. Highly recommended!
Minnesota Opera‘s production of The Manchurian Candidate continues through March 15; with performances on Thursday, March 12 and Saturday, March 14 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, March 15 at 2pm. All performances take place at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, located at 345 Washington Ave in St. Paul. Tickets are $25-200 and can be purchased at the Ordway box office or at Minnesota Opera’s webpage.
Photo Credit: Michal Daniel
Video Credit: Minnesota Opera