Tue October 1, 2013
Opera News International Magazine
Roméo et Juliette (6/28/13), Elektra(6/29/13), Peter Grimes (6/30/13)
Des Moines Metro Opera

Des Moines Metro Opera's forty-first season found the company taking some provocative risks and considerably upping the artistic ante from previous years. Roméo et Juliette (seen June 28) may not be anyone's first idea of a "light" offering, but in truth Gounod's adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy is a trifle sugary. There was an engaging pair of protagonists in Jason Slayden and Sara Gartland, he with the requisite heroism for "Ah! Lève-toi, soleil," while Juliette's Act I waltz allowed the soprano's flickering vibrato to shine prettily through the display writing. Craig Verm was altogether excellent as a spirited Mercutio. Susan Shafer's plummy mezzo brimmed with character as Gertrude, and though Gounod gives Frère Laurent rather short shrift, bass Jeffrey Tucker did well with what is there. Tony Dillon tossed off Capulet's patter adroitly. Sarah Larsen was the engaging Stéphano, Heath Huberg the volatile Tybalt. Linda Ade Brand's direction fielded some interesting touches; transitions were highlighted by snippets of Shakespeare's text, projected onto an enveloping scrim by lighting designer Barry Steele. Kostis Protopapas led an invigorating account of the score. There was nothing earth-shattering here, but the evening was most enjoyable and represented a predictable company standard.

The next two offerings in the festival delivered far more than that. DMMO's decision to essay Richard Strauss's brutal masterwork Elektra (seen June 29) caused quite a buzz, but director Dugg McDonough's gripping mounting played exceptionally well in this venue. The vocalism was of the most consistent high standard in my experience with this company. Brenda Harris delivered a stunning account of the vengeful Greek princess, distinguished by scrupulous observation of the score, including the marked pianissimos that are so rarely heard. Her voice oozed sarcasm on "Tochter Klytämnestras?" and honeyed hypocrisy when wheedling Corey Bix's amusingly androgynous Aegisth. Harris's formidable achievement would easily transfer to a larger house, where she would sing the role more completely than most of her current competition. Joyce Castle was terrific as a truly loathsome Klytämnestra, oppressively weighed down with jewels and guilt and singing with power and vast interpretive intelligence. Julie Makerov sang a radiant, expressive Chrysothemis. Philip Horst offered an Orest whose theatrical intensity was harmonized by sheer tonal beauty. Megan Cullen's Overseer and the cadre of Maids were first-rate. Conductor David Neely led a thrilling account of Strauss's own reduced score for sixty-eight players. This Elektra was a brave endeavor, and one that paid off beautifully.

Next came Roger Honeywell's extraordinary performance in the title role of Britten's Peter Grimes(seen June 30). Honeywell's stage sense is second to none, so his judiciously nuanced dramatic performance was foreseeable; the tenor has come into his own technically as well and delivered a prodigious vocal performance impressive for its remarkable skill in dynamic shading, as well as its dramatic power. All was delivered with a catch in the voice reflective of misery itself. This bodes to be a career-defining interpretation. Soprano Sinéad Mulhern was at her best in Ellen's embroidery aria, where her lower-middle register glowed beautifully. Todd Thomas perfectly captured Balstrode's bluster and sensitivity and sang with great beauty and persuasiveness. Kathryn Day made a feast of Mrs. Sedley's small-minded bitchery. Tucker fielded a delightfully frenetic portrait of Swallow, and Schafer traded in her Gounod Gertrude for an appropriately earthy Auntie. Bix delivered a threateningly boozy Bob Boles. Verm's baritone gleamed above the ensembles as Ned, while Sara Ann Mitchell and Dana Pundt warbled the Nieces — who in this 1940s update ran about in slips and trench coats much more than nice girls should. The fifty-plus-voice chorus was top notch, and when in Kristine McIntyre's admirable staging the assemblage bled into the aisles, the effect was overwhelming; one really felt surrounded by an enraged, dangerous mob. Neely spirited the orchestra through those sea interludes beautifully. This Grimes would be a front-runner on any stage, anywhere.

R. Keith Brumley's traditional design of dark stone and Renaissance tapestries for the Gounod was complemented by a similarly naturalistic grey sky and omnipresent seascape for Grimes. The Strauss brought a marvelously quirky concept for Agamemnon's degenerating castle, based on the murdered king's own death mask. When Elektra and Orest embraced, the mask shed tears, and so did we. This was DMMO's strongest season in memory.