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‘The Manchurian Candidate’ at the Ordway: dark, thrilling, not to be missed

Photo by Michal Daniel
Suspenseful, chilling, ambitious and thought-provoking, "The Manchurian Candidate" pits evil against innocence, mother against son, love against loss, wrong against right (and left against right).

The first opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell was a hit, playing to sold-out houses, earning raves and winning the Pulitzer in music for Puts. Since its world premiere here in 2011, “Silent Night,” commissioned by Minnesota Opera as part of its pioneering New Works Initiative, has been produced by Cincinnati Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Philadelphia Opera, Calgary Opera in Canada, Ireland’s Wexford Festival and, most recently, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

“Silent Night” has entered the repertory, clearing one of the biggest hurdles for new operas, many of which flame up like Fourth of July fireworks and fade as quickly, never to be produced again. So a big question Saturday night at the Ordway Music Theater was: Could Puts, Campbell and Minnesota Opera do it again? Would “The Manchurian Candidate,” their second collaboration, succeed or disappoint?

We’re hazarding a guess here, but … welcome to the repertory, “Manchurian Candidate.” Suspenseful, chilling, ambitious and thought-provoking, “The Manchurian Candidate” pits evil against innocence, mother against son, love against loss, wrong against right (and left against right). It’s dark and creepy. Even for opera, it has a high body count. Packing 19 scenes into two acts efficiently and economically, with one 20-minute intermission, “Candidate” clocks in at a little over two hours. It’s a wild ride.

In the evil Eleanor Iseling, soprano Brenda Harris has found a villainess to eclipse Lady Macbeth. As brainwashed Sergeant Raymond Shaw, baritone Matthew Worth evokes both sympathy and horror. Tenor Leonardo Capalbo infuses Captain Ben Marco with loyalty, bravery, steadfastness and humanity; he’s the opera’s moral center and our only hope. Set in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism, “Candidate” feels contemporary. Large monitors above the stage track the characters’ moves when they’re not on stage (and sometimes when they are), reminding us that nowadays, we’re all under surveillance. The silent, suit-and-tie wearing scenery movers seem ominous and threatening. Fear is used by the rich and powerful to manipulate the public.

Harris’ aria near the end of Act I will freeze your blood. The ensemble pieces are stirring, including a duet between Marco and Shaw’s wife, Josie, who both sing about Shaw using almost the same words, with vastly different meanings. The final scene, with the chorus in full voice, is almost unbearably intense. Puts has woven in bits of Sousa, patriotic tunes and dissonance that keeps your teeth on edge; a party tips into a crude and frenetic hoedown. Almost every word is sung. The story is carried on an often stormy sea of music, with lyrical love scenes for catching our breath. Don’t get too attached to those.

Kevin Newbury’s direction, Michael Christie’s conducting, Japhy Weideman’s lighting, and Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projections come together in a well-oiled machine where the tension builds and there’s no escape. Set designer Robert Brill’s  black-box stage morphs from lecture theater to apartments, newspaper office, woods, train, press conference and convention hall. There isn’t a slow moment or wasted move, and just when you think you’ve learned the worst, Harris sings a ghastly song about the miracle of love.

An informal survey yielded comments like these: “It’s fabulous.” “Love it.” “Thrilling.” “The best contemporary opera I’ve ever seen.” Catch it here while you can; just three performances remain, through March 15. FMI and tickets ($25-$200).

***

After hearing the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in its new Ordway Concert Hall on Thursday, we can’t wait to return. With the SPCO cradled in a curve of wood and that sensuous, undulating ceiling overhead, it’s an exquisitely beautiful space, a new jewel for us all to enjoy. And the sound! We’ve been promised from the start that the Concert Hall would be special, but nothing could prepare us for the actual physical experience. It’s like hearing the SPCO in HD, as if each individual note were distinct and defined, a thread in the air you can reach out and touch.

The opening night program – Prokofiev’s lighthearted, colorful “Classical” symphony; George Tsontakis’s “Coraggio” for String Orchestra; Beethoven’s mighty “Eroica” – seemed designed to show off the SPCO’s new $42-million instrument, the hall itself, and give us a taste of what the musicians can do with it: deliver full, clear louds and shimmering softs, inner voices we’ve never heard before, singing solos and layers of notes. Not mushy, mashed-together layers, but geological layers. And the reverb, most noticeable with the violins, is a marvel, hovering briefly once the bows have left the strings, then disappearing quickly and cleanly. Think a really good wine.

After the Prokofiev, principal second violin and senior director of artistic planning Kyu-Young Kim took a moment to thank us for coming and praise the hall and its possibilities. “The connection we have with our audience can be more direct, emotional, visceral and intimate,” he said, then announced the SPCO had added a fourth piece to the program: Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” It starts out so softly you’re not sure the musicians aren’t miming the notes. You feel it before you hear it.

Notes: This is no place for a cellphone to go off during a concert. (Thankfully, that didn’t happen, at least not on the opening nights.) The Ordway might consider making cough drops available, as the Ted Mann does, in wrappers that don’t crinkle too loudly. Ladies, leave your jingly bracelets at home. This is a brand-new sound environment, one that will take getting used to. The SPCO has had two months to learn about it. Now it’s up to the rest of us.

The picks

Tonight (Tuesday, March 10) at The Museum of Russian Art and the St. Paul JCC: Anya von Bremzen: “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing.” The Russian expat and James Beard Award-winning food writer tells the story of post-revolutionary Russia in family tales and recipes. For $45, you can start at TMORA (5:30-6:45 p.m.) with tours of the current exhibition and personal stories by von Bremzen, then end at the JCC (7:30-8:30 p.m.) with a public talk. Register here. For $25, you can attend the public talk at the JCC (7:30 p.m.). Buy online or call 651-698-0751. Both options include a signed copy of the book.

Tonight at Prior Lake Library: The 2015 Minnesota Book Awards Finalists in General Nonfiction. Meet and hear Scott Graden and Arlene Anderson (“New Scenic Café Cookbook”), Brenda Child (“My Grandfather’s Knocking Sticks”), R.W. Holmen (“Queer Clergy”) and Nancy Koester (“Harriet Beecher Stowe”). With Jack El-Hai, 2014 winner for “The Nazi and the Psychiatrist.” 6:30 p.m. Free.

Tonight at Northrop: Compagnie Käfig. Eleven young dancers from Rio de Janeiro perform French-born choreographer Mourad Merzouki’s “Correria” (Running), a frantic, hectic race, and “Agwa” (Water). Combining street dance with acrobatics, hip-hop, samba, electronic music and bossa nova, this looks to be a tremendously exciting evening. Here’s a video. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($33-$58). Free performance preview at 6:15 in the Best Buy Theater.

Thursday at Westminster Presbyterian Church: Westminster Town Hall Forum: Andrew Zimmern. The chef, food writer, teacher and television host (“Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern”) will speak on food, culture and the community. Music at 11:30 with Charanga Tropical, talk at noon. Free.

Thursday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: Alec Soth “Songbook” book signing. More than 20 of Soth’s large-format, black-and-white photographs from his latest project, “Songbook,” are on display at the Weinstein Gallery through April 4. Published by MACK in the UK, the first printing of the book has sold out, but the MIA nabbed copies ahead of time. Arrive early if you want one. 7 p.m. in the museum store.

Thursday and Friday at Hopkins Center for the Arts: Pen Pals: Kevin Kling. Poet Richard Blanco had to cancel at the last minute. Our own Kevin Kling – playwright, storyteller, NPR commentator – has agreed to step in, and if you already have tickets, you won’t be sorry. Tickets are still available ($40/$50) and turnbacks will be accepted as refunds or tax-deductible contributions; call 612-543-8112.

The weekend

Saturday at the Trylon Microcinema: DVD and Movie Book Estate Sale. Trylon regular and movie buff John Bloomfield, who passed away last year, left his entire collection of DVDs and movie books to the Trylon, to be sold to benefit the theater. Expect hundreds of rare DVDs including many Criterion titles, still sealed, and scores of rare books. 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. 

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by george woytanowitz on 03/10/2015 - 10:15 am.

    Manchurian Candidate

    Oh please!!

    Enough balderdash about the Minnesota Opera and its world premieres. I truly believe they do these things not out of audience demand but to get attention in the national press for a company that would otherwise be ignored. Neither the NY Times nor the WS Journal will send a critic to flyover country to review a Don Giovanni or a Traviata. Sometimes, however, it backfires.

    The WS Journal and NY Times panned it. Not very musical. Can there be a greater condemnation of an opera?

  2. Submitted by Carl Voss on 03/10/2015 - 02:30 pm.

    misprint

    It’s “Coraggio,” not “Corragio.”

    • Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 03/10/2015 - 05:01 pm.

      Courage

      Mr. Voss, thanks once again. Although spellcheck tried to change it to “Corgi,” so at least my spelling was closer.

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