(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
It began with a blitz.
That was the clang of Austin Opera’s orchestra counting in as the huge screen at the back of the Long Center stage flashed strobe-light images of the American flag. With each pulse of the music, the stars and stripes shifted, into a dozen different iterations.
At Saturday’s one-night-only performance of Kevin Puts’ “The Manchurian Candidate” we instantly felt this opera’s intensity, its blinding strobes viscerally putting us on notice.
The plot, is more or less familiar closely following the 1959 novel by Richard Condon (and the 1962 film). The operatic “Manchurian Candidate” also shows us Raymond Shaw, a soldier unwittingly programmed to kill on command, while under something like hypnosis.
And in the opening, Shaw does kill, with hardly a flinch.
He comes home a war hero, greeted by his estranged parents, a political couple with a rabid anti-communist agenda, and tries to live a normal life until the memories, which were supposed to be knotted up, begin to unravel.
Cold War and modern conspiracy theory aside, it’s an almost stereotypical opera plot: Life and death, impossible choices, love won and lost. Betrayal.
But so many elements in this production felt freshly jarring.
It was originally commissioned in 2015 by Minnesota Opera for composer Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, the duo behind the acclaimed opera “Silent Night,” which garnered Puts the Pulitzer for composing.
And the Minnesota premiere of a fully-staged “Manchurian” received warm, if not unanimously positive reviews. But Austin Opera’s version is clearly a different animal.
For its pared-down production of this one-night only performance, Austin Opera actually commissioned a new visual projection by designer Greg Emetaz. Alison Moritz, who came up with the idea of doing a semi-staged version, worked up new staging.
And what staging. The first third of the opera is riveting. Any preconceived ideas about the novel’s rather hokey premise are dismissed within those first few minutes.
Sharp lighting choices by Kathryn Eader illuminate action and hide the orchestra — which is out of the pit, and on the stage — in plain sight. The wooden panels, which typically line the stage shell, have been removed, leaving rectangular gaps of light and stark metal frames.
How can less add up to so much more?
Costumes amount to nothing: simple black shirts and dresses. Props too: playing cards and guns are imaginary.
Puts’ score fills in the blanks, constantly scrubbing dark textures beneath the action, while celeste chimes chart the story’s mysterious turns. A few jazzy solos land remarkably softly here, with some brightening colors.
Conductor Richard Buckley seemed newly energized, and pulled some gorgeous music from his strings, while battling a few missed entrances elsewhere. Tricky, because this is a score in constant motion.
So too is the screen. Images float, flash and cross cut over one another to explain settings, datelines and to evoke moods. An HD Manhattan skyline at night lights a pall over our characters, a swirl of playing cards add a feeling of confusion. We see flashbacks of murders, and trains rolling by. The screen is another character here, collaborating in the background as performers turned simple chairs into a train, or a crowd into a convention ballroom.
Always something is happening on stage; two conversations sung at the same time, two settings occupying different parts of the view.
A flashback scene induced goosebumps as Raymond Shaw replays his meeting with an old flame, Jocelyn, in front of his eyes. It’s cleverly played out by a younger Shaw, who meets Jocelyn (Austin soprano Mela Dailey) and her charming father (a scene-stealing David Small) for the first time, only to discover they are political enemies of his mother. In the midst of this tragedy, the scene plays for laughs, and got them in spades from the crowd.
But, on the edge of our laughter, standing behind the flashback is our Ray, in the middle distance, singing gorgeous lines of regret and loss. It felt utterly contemporary; devastatingly possible.
Only a couple of hitches touched this new “Manchurian Candidate.” The first half is twenty minutes too long. Such visceral intensity cannot be sustained by the audience without a break.
And in the final scene (spoiler alert), the ending is clumsily spelled out for us. This is patently unnecessary, killing whatever hope there was for surprise. The modern audience is smart enough to get it.
The acting was affecting. Vidor, Texas native David Adam Moore, as Raymond Shaw, has a rich baritone and genuine acting chops. His performance is matched with the nuance of Captain Ben Marco, his military foil, played by tenor John Robert Lindsey. Strong performances from familiar local singers abound: Dailey, Small, mezzo-soprano Liz Cass, baritone Donnie Ray Albert.
Soprano Brenda Harris, as Shaw’s mother strikes a powerful, funereal figure, with powerful vocals, yet as an actress, her portrayal seemed somehow old-fashioned, dipping too far into melodrama.
As for political intrigue? Well, it’s timely. But “Manchurian” occupies its own space.
More importantly, this was the first performance of “Manchurian” since its premiere. The audience would have been quite right to lower its expectations for a single-night’s “semi-staged” opera.
What resulted instead was a production that bloomed under its staging constraints (at, presumably, a lesser expense). Austin audiences were treated to an original creation which injected a fresh sense of urgency to an already strong, new opera.