Monday, December 14, 2009

A New Opera Premieres in Santa Clara and a New Star is Born

Michael Taylor's new opera, "Truce of Carols," delights audiences.

At the world premiere of Gian-Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors nearly 60 years ago, New York Times music critic Olin Downes wrote, "It was an exquisite piece… a work that few indeed could have seen and heard last night save through blurred eyes, and with emotions that were not easy to conceal."

Downes' tribute can equally be paid to Michael Taylor's new Christmas opera, Truce of Carols, making its world premiere on December 5, 2009 in a production by Santa Clara's Mission City Opera (MCO). The first-ever opera premiere in Santa Clara's two-century history, the appealing show drew standing ovations at both its performances, bidding fair to join Menotti's opera as an enduring holiday classic.

Like Menotti's Amahl, True of Carols presents a famous story through the lens of ordinary lives (war's greatest, if not first, casualty). Truce tells the story of the spontaneous 1914 Christmas ceasefire on the western front that began with a German soldier crossing no-man's-land with a Christmas tree for the British.

Taylor's mastery as a singer, actor, director and conductor shows in Truce's unity and dramatic economy across the libretto, action and music. The music is both contemporary and enjoyable: richly melodic, spot-on in dramatic effect and above all, memorable. "This is extraordinary music," says MCO Founder and Executive Director Sharon Kaye.

Taylor's musical style is lyrical and easy-to-enjoy, showing influences as diverse as Romantic Italian romantic opera, as well as the 20th century composers Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Holst, Giancarlo Menotti, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and French impressionist Eric Satie, who was contemporary with WWI. "I wanted the music to be accessible and engaging, to reflect the moment and the characters," Taylor says. "My ears are filled with Puccini, Verdi. I draw on every source."

Truce of Carols opens with an expressive orchestral exposition of two stage sets: an English garden where a young man proposes to his sweetheart, and a German country house where a family sits down to dinner. The overture that follows bypasses the musical cliché of military marches, instead evoking war's gathering clouds with unsettling harmonies and a moody, anxious melodic line. Then, like sunshine after a storm, dissonance yields to the 17th century German carol, I Know a Rose Tree Springing at first quiet and tentative, then gloriously full.

The scene opens to trench war's stalemate. It's Christmas Eve, and the German and English armies are facing off across No Man's Land. The English keep fear and boredom at bay by playing cards, while salt-of-the-earth Sergeant Mac (Robert Snedgar) dispenses unvarnished lessons in survival – "Keep your head down and your yap shut."

A flying boot from the Germans, mistaken for a grenade, disturbs the card-playing. The boot contains tobacco and sweets from the Germans, and the erstwhile enemies start wisecracking and singing Christmas carols across the trenches.

On the German side, chaplain Gunther (Norm DeVol) decides to venture across No Man's Land with the storied Christmas tree. In a moving scene, former adversaries join together to bury their fallen comrades as Gunther intones the Latin Requiem mass. Here again, Taylor demonstrates that less is more; in this case with traditional, unaccompanied Gregorian Chant.

Truce of Carols' most interesting character is the brooding Prussian sniper Markus, a man unconvinced by Christmas pieties and holiday gemutlichkeit. Perceptively played – 'inhabited' may be a better description – by baritone Sascha Joggerst, Markus is no mere cynic. He's a soul looking into the 20th century's heart of darkness, and instead of progress and peace, intuits poet William Butler Yeats' dark vision of the bloody and destructive century about to unfold:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.**

"Peace is a time of delusion between wars," Markus tells his comrades. "Thousands will fall and be forgotten, rows and rows of white headstones. Nothing more. Nichts mehr."

However, Truce of Carols is most emphatically not the relentless pessimism of modernist works like Wozzeck. Taylor, is at heart an optimist about the human condition, leavening tragedy with both humor and hope. "That's the human spirit," he says. "This hope lets the characters control their own destiny, even if it's just for 24, 48 hours." Indeed, as the two adversaries sit down to a Christmas dinner together, the German Lt. Gottlieb (Cliff Romig) offers a toast to "The day the trench rats defied the lion's roar, the call To War! To hell with their war!"

Fine achievement that Truce of Carols is, it would be nothing without the performers and supporting crew who undertook the formidable challenges of bringing a new work to the stage.

"The hardest thing about performing a new work for me was not having a point of reference," says baritone Jeffrey Taylor who made his debut on the opera stage as Jonathan Prescott. With leading-man good looks and a rich, expressive voice to match, the 17 year-old electrified Sunday's audience with his performance of Truce's signature aria, Lavender and Peonies.

Mezzo Carolyne Anne Jordan and Soprano Erin Lahm shone in their respective roles as Lt. Gottlieb's wife Inge and Jonathan Prescott's fiancĂ© Constance. Their shimmering and perfectly balanced – something of a challenge because they were on opposite sides of the theater – duet, Writing Home, recalled the famous Flower Duet From Leo Delibes's opera Lakme.

Baritone Robert Snedegar exemplifies the all-round dedication of the MCO company. Truly a jack-of-all-trades, Snedgear brought verve to roles in both Truce of Carols and Amahl and the Night Visitors, in addition to designing and constructing the stage sets. Tenor Norm DeVol showed his acting and vocal versatility, first with a moving performance of Gunther's Aria, in which the chaplain insists on the humanity of even their adversaries, and later as the somnolent and deaf Wise Man, Kaspar, in Amahl.

And it goes without saying that six year-old William Voelker, a theatrical veteran who made his stage debut at 14 months, was a show-stealer as the Gottliebs' young son Kristian.

"I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, it was a very moving production," says John Peterson of Santa Clara. "I hope," added his companion, Robin Burdick, voicing the feelings of everyone in that opening night audience, "they'll be doing this again next year."

Santa Clara's Mission City Opera's next production will be Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme, Feb. 19, 21, 26 and 28, 2010. MCO's productions are made possible by the generous support of City of Santa Clara, grants from the Mission City Community Fund and the Applied Materials Excellence in the Arts program of Arts Council Silicon Valley, private donors, and ticket sales. For information visit, call (408) 749-7607, or email Listen to Truce of Carols music.

*It's interesting to note that universal dramatic shorthand for the sacred remains the so-called archaic 1,500 year-old Latin chant of western Christianity. It appears that Dancing with the Angels has yet to displace Requiem Aeternam.

** The Second Coming, W.B. Yeats, 1921

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