Monday, June 1, 2009

Rumpelstiltskin revised

I spent Friday evening in the basement of the Boston Conservatory, checking out Marti Epstein's Rumpelstiltskin, a new chamber piece presented by Guerilla Opera, a local group dedicated to shaking up the opera scene (the final performance was Monday). The production had much to recommend it: the minimal staging was consistently intriguing, with a clean physical design and evocative rear projections (and even a simple but effectively creepy digital animation at the finish). But it was inevitably limited by its rather obvious politics, and its circumscribed musical vocabulary.

For this was hardly the Brothers-Grimm version of "Rumpelstiltskin," (Arthur Rackham's version, at left) which is a potent amalgam of folk-tale motifs (the pretty commoner who becomes queen, the wicked forest sprite, the search for a magical name or talisman, etc.). Composer/librettist Marti Goldstein (with adapter/director Greg Smucker) had instead transmuted this familiar material into a sad feminist fable, in which Rumpelstiltskin (Aliana de la Guardia) was a deformed, psychologically wounded woman, and even the miller (who gets the story going by foolishly bragging that his daughter can spin straw into gold) sang a soprano vocal line (although he was played by a male, Matthew Truss). Thus victimized "wymyn" crowded the scene, gender issues were somewhat pointlessly in play, and the only unambiguously-rendered 'male' on hand was the oppressive, self-satisfied king (Victor Jannett), who marries and - at least in this version - eventually executes his mate with impassive alacrity.

This is not to argue that the original tale does not reflect a cruelly sexist social hegemony - it does; but somehow this provides more narrative kick than the barely-disguised political instruction proferred here. Although frankly, with more variety in the voices, even this reworking might have proved fairly compelling. But with three sopranos duking it out for stage-time, things got a little dull vocally, largely because composer Epstein had mostly provided her singers with what my partner calls "standard-issue academic writing" - that is, quasi-Asian, vaguely gamelan-esque post-minimalism that pretty much defies the normal cadence of speech and song: a recipe for fairly aggressive (if somewhat exotic) tedium. To be fair, the music was highly wrought, and Epstein sometimes generated a haunting atmosphere from her small, talented ensemble: but as opera, the music often felt stillborn. Epstein seemed to be subconsciously subscribing to the idea that operatic music should create a contemplative atmosphere, rather than foster dramatic development, pace Philip Glass (after Bertolt Brecht); but the victimology of her Rumpelstiltskin was essentially as sentimental as Puccini, just in the academy's progressive political mode.

Still, Epstein and adapter Smucker had thought up an interesting final twist, in which Rumpelstiltskin does not disappear in a fury, but rather leaves a very unpleasant legacy behind. This idea, of a literal deformity perpetuated by political deformity, was certainly resonant, and in addition to the successfully avant staging made at least the opera's last moments memorable. Of the singers, Aliana de la Guardia, decked out in horror-movie contact lenses, fared best as Rumpelstiltskin (and her strange, distracted body language gave hints that the music was intended as a concrete emanation of her seeming autism). Perhaps most striking, however, was male soprano Matthew Truss, who brought impressive lung power to a startlingly high vocal line; alas, perhaps too much power - at close range the soprano ensembles got shrieky. As an experiment, I suppose all this was laudable; still, Guerilla Opera might be wise to admit that sometimes, experiments don't yield their desired results.


  1. Nice review, although I didn't find any gender or political subtext as you did. Also, I think by now most audiences for contemporary opera are fairly used to the less active, more scenic approach to the genre. After all, Glass's most famous operas were written in the 80's and Adams' 20 years ago.

  2. Thanks for your comment - and to each his or her own, of course; but I think by now these gender and political subtexts have become so ingrained in academic writing that they have become a reflexive, default position - so much so that we don't even "see" them anymore. And you're quite right about Glass and Adams - this style is more than a generation old; an odd choice, therefore, for a small new company looking to shake up the local scene. My point was that it's time to move on down the road.