Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The glory of Edward Tulane is the way it looks, with sets (by Walt Spangler), costumes (by Victoria Tzykun), and lighting (by Marcus Doshi) that truly dazzle the eye. A scene set at the bottom of the ocean, complete with balletic marine life, drew applause from the audience before even a note was sung. The deck of the Queen Mary making a fashionable 1930s-era ocean crossing, a crowd of depression-era drifters riding the rails in boxcars, and a bustling neon-lit diner are also impressively rendered. A display rack holding an array of beautifully dressed and coifed dolls, singing out to customers in hopes that one will give them a home, takes the breath away. The imaginative costumes for a fairy tale told as a bedtime story within the opera are utterly amazing.
Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell deftly transforms DiCamillo's inventive tale for opera. The episodic story's theme is that a life without love is without value. Set in the United States during the 1930s, a somber woman named Pellegrina presents an elegant toy rabbit as a Christmas gift to her ten-year-old granddaughter Abilene, who names him Edward Tulane. He is dressed in dapper apparel specially tailored for him. Abilene dearly loves Edward, but Edward is unresponsive to her. That night, Pellegrina tells Abilene, holding Edward close beside her, a bedtime story about a princess whose is unhappy because she never feels love. Edward remains unresponsive, and Pellegrina whispers to him "Edward, you disappoint me."
At this point, a living, human-sized Edward appears, delightfully performed by Jack Swanson. For the duration of the opera, we see both the toy and his human representative in tandem. It is not long before Edward is lost at the bottom of the sea, having fallen from the Queen Mary. After a long stay amongst jellyfish, seahorses, manta rays, and fish, Edward is rescued in a fisherman's net. His further adventures include a stay with the fisherman and his wife, to whom Edward represents a lost child; a hobo and his companionable dog; a boy named Bryce who brings Edward home to cheer his critically ill sister, and later, making his way as a street musician, has Edward perform as a dancing rabbit. Eventually, Edward is taken in by a dollmaker who skillfully repairs him and displays him with a score of exquisitely dressed dolls, each hoping to be taken home and loved by a child. A final step in Edward's miraculous journey ensures that he travels full circle, with a generous serving of redemption.
Jack Swanson is delightful as Edward Tulane, his posture and expressions showing him transition from one who sees little need for love, to one who understands that it is the only thing that has ever brought meaning to him. The full-voiced tenor is a native of Stillwater, but after appearing around the nation and internationally is only now making his Minnesota Opera debut.
While he shines with charisma, Swanson is not given as interesting material vocally as some of the featured performers, who are the spotlight in sections of Paola Prestini's score. Standouts include tenor Brian Vu as sensitive and resilient young Bryce; soprano Jasmine Habersham as his doomed sister Sarah Ruth; mezzo Victoria Vargas as Nellie, the fisherman's wife who finds solace for her grief in Edward; bass Benjamin Sieverding as the drifter Bull; and mezzo Elise Quagliata as Pellegrina. There certainly are no weak links in the cast, and their voices are given full-throated reinforcement from members of the Minnesota Opera Chorus.
Amid a raft of treasures, the score turns out to be the least satisfying element of Edward Tulane. Prestini's composition is lovely as a rolling, dreamy backdrop, in sync with the turns of plot and feelings expressed by the libretto, but it never coalesces to deliver feelings on its own merit. The score is never less than pleasing, but themes within the score lack the distinction necessary to be equal partners to the opera's other surging elements. That said, the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, led by conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, plays beautifully.
Given the ever-shifting narrative tone, the elaborate set pieces and complicated transitions, stage director Eric Simonson had a tremendous amount on his shoulders, and he comes through with flying colors. There is little in Edward Tulane that I would call outright dancing, aside from the spritely performance of the dancing rabbit, but there are elements of movement imbedded in the staging, which is the graceful work of choreographer Heidi Spesard-Noble.
I had a wonderful time at Edward Tulane, dazzled by the onstage artistry, uplifted by Mark Campbell's retelling of Kate DiCamillo's heartfelt book, and markedly impressed by the performances. If music is thought to be at the core of an opera, Edward Tulane might be given a lower rank. It is true, no one speaks of (librettist) Piave's La Traviata or (librettist) Schikaneder's The Magic Flute, only Verdi's La Traviata and Mozart's The Magic Flute. And yet, each work must be viewed on its unique merits, on the cumulative impact it has on its audience, and how its components work in unison to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Given that assessment, Edward Tulane scores high on the chart, making for an entrancing opera, one that will delight all ages.
Edward Tulane runs through October 16, 2022, presented by Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $32.00 to $248.00. Youth tickets (age 20 and below) available at Patron Services, $20.00. Rush tickets: unsold tickets 90 minutes before performance time are half price; Youth Rush tickets (age 20 and below) are $10.00. A $3.00 facility fee is added to all tickets. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-6699 or visit www.mnopera.org.
Music: Paola Prestini; Libretto: Mark Campbell, based on the novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo; Conductor: Lidiya Yankovskaya; Stage Director: Eric Simonson; Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Victoria (Vita) Tzykun; Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi Hair and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Intimacy and Fight Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Head of Music and Assistant Director: Mario Antonio Marra; Principal Music Coach: Celeste Marie Johnson; Répétiteurs: Erica Guo and Eric McEnaney; Assistant Stage Director: Margaret Jumonville; Production Stage Manager: Jerry K. Smith.
Cast: Danielle Beckvermit (Lolly/Marlene), Nicholas Davis (King/Lawrence/Grandfather), Keely Futterer (Abilene's Mother/Fancy Doll 2/Grown Up Abilene), Jasmine Habersham (Sarah Ruth), Zachary James (Witch/Lucius Clarke), Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez (Young Abilene/Betty), Elise Quagliata (Pellegrina/Older Doll), Lisa Marie Rogali (Princess/Lucy/Fancy Doll 1), Christian Sanders (Prince/Rat/Doll Shop Father), Jeremiah Sanders (Abiline's Father/Bryce's Father), Benjamin Sieverding (Bull/Neal), Jack Swanson (Edward Tulane), Victoria Vargas (Nellie/Fancy Doll 3), Brain Vu (Bryce).