It is not often that a program offers heartfelt imagery that is brilliantly optimistic, and also brings in dark, often sad scenarios. That is the beauty of traditional fairy and folk tales, that there is darkness in the world, yet the human spirit stands even if it depends on a harsh struggle. This is the beauty behind the double billing put together by the closing performance of the Opera Season at The Wolf Trap, which includes The Juniper Tree and Bastianello. The fully staged productions are a wonderful treat for any opera fan and intricate enough to challenge even the more expert tastes, all themed around classic tales and family.
Bastianello, composed by John Musto, is a modern interpretation of a classic Italian folk tale where a man goes off on a quest to find six characters even sillier than his family. On his wedding night, he finds that his own family is terribly silly and he needs to go out and find those who are worse off than himself before he ties the knot. The whole story is told tongue-in-cheek and with a tremendous sense of humor. As you can expect, the sort of situations he finds in his journey is nothing short of absurd. The first three encounters will have you laughing and the performances and costumes in this opera go well with the rest of the story, truly supporting the craziness but lovely self-discovery the man embarks upon.
In his fourth and last discovery, the man finds another man who is mourning the loss of his dear wife. This man is bemoaning his sadness by a lake, as he finds in the reflection of the moon on that lake the face of his wife, who drowned there after an argument. The dramatic mistake unravels the man’s inner state of mind and provides a commentary on marriage and relationships that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. After this encounter, the groom who embarked on that quest rushes back to his bride-to-be and without a doubt, the marriage goes through.
Conductor Lidiya Yankovska does a terrific job of leading a full ensemble that was also directed by R.B. Schlather. In the role of the young man, tenor Jonas Hacker is able to summon all the audience’s sympathy after the wedding. A fresh face and a newcomer to the Opera scene, his performance is one that is not to be missed. The entire ensemble plays well together here, with many of the actors stepping into different roles throughout this opera and being able to convey sarcasm and lighthearted fun. It is a relatable tale that had the entire audience in smiles all the way through.
As if Bastianello was not enough of a treat, after intermission there is also The Juniper Tree, composed by both Philip Glass and Robert Moran. This performance is part of the celebrations around Glass’s 80th birthday and it is truly a gem. Originally released in 1985, The Juniper Tree combines Glass and Moran’s input in a musical score that has repetitive structures and veers from light, nature-inspired sounds to dark and ominous atmospheric sounds that make for an ideal structure to tell this gloomy story.
In The Juniper Tree, after many hopeful tries, a couple finally conceives a son, but the mother dies in childbirth. Later the father remarries and forms a family with his new wife and a daughter. The wife, who cannot tolerate the idea of having the presence of the former late wife, even through the small boy, is soon consumed with jealousy. Finally, jealousy gets the best of the stepmother as she sees the first wife living on in the son; she kills him and cooks him for the father to eat. Annie Rosen delivers an impactful performance as the stepmother, and Ben Edquist does a superb job of carrying out this tragic tale as the father.
Resiliency of the spirit, however, is at the heart of The Juniper Tree’s tale, as the daughter has the heart to bury the bones of her half-brother by the juniper tree and his soul enters a bird that the tree spawns. It is a magical tale that combines many allegoric elements and gives hope amidst jealousy, one of the worst human emotions. This is a poetic opera, even if the plot can be reminiscent of Game of Thrones; it is also a must see for any Glass fan as his collaboration with Moran is unique and brings out some of the best elements of his composition style. The music styles of both composers merge remarkably well. Moran takes on the more complex sections of the opera with a redemptive tone and we can hear Glass’s trademark music repetition scales and arpeggios in the scene of the mother’s death.
The story in The Juniper Tree is originally one from the brother Grimm. This modern take showcases the best of classic children’s tales, which remains the dark elements of human emotions when brought to their last consequences and the ability of even the smallest children to change the course of the story and be resilient. The terrific cast here is not only musically superb, but the acting will have you wrapped in this other dark world, which sometimes is reminiscent of a Tim Burton film, brought to life in this top-notch production.
In both of these operas, there is a theme of family and redemption running throughout. The entire program is one of the best values in opera right now, with a double-billing that is high in sensibility and atmospheric qualities. The lighting and design by Robert H. Grimes really heighten some of the naturalistic and tragic elements of this production, which fit so well in the beautiful and acoustically stunning venue of The Barns at The Wolf Trap. The birds and trees in the second opera of The Juniper Tree truly come alive and grab you from your seat into the magical world of fairy tales.
This is a great way to conclude the opera season at The Wolf Trap and a fantastic way to celebrate one of the best American living composers, Philip Glass. And, if the score and dark tale of revenge and cannibalism is not enough to pique your interest; the Italian tale Bastianello is delightfully funny, crowd-pleasing production. This is entirely a not-to-be-missed double-billing.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.