Sunday, March 8, 2015

Opera Review: The Manchurian Candidate, music by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell, World Premiere Presented by the Minnesota Opera (2015)

The logo for the opera The Manchurian Candidate, music by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell, world premiere presented by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.

Matthew Worth as Raymond Shaw, and Leonardo Capalbo as Bennett Marco, The Manchurian Candidate, 2015.

Frank Sinatra as Bennett Marco, and Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw in the film version of The Manchurian Candidate, 1962.
The opera The Manchurian Candidate had its world premiere last night at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. The Manchurian Candidate was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera, and the music was written by Kevin Puts, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. Puts and Campbell previously collaborated on the 2012 opera Silent Night, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. 

The Manchurian Candidate was based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, which was subsequently adapted into a 1962 movie directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury. It was re-made in 2004 by Jonathan Demme, with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep starring. The novel and the Frankenheimer film are classics of Cold War paranoia, as nothing is quite what it seems to be.

The plot of The Manchurian Candidate centers on Raymond Shaw and Bennett Marco, two American soldiers who are captured by Chinese Communists during the Korean War. We see surreal scenes of Shaw being brainwashed to remorselessly kill other members of his own platoon. Shaw has no memory of the terrible things that he has done while he’s brainwashed. The Communists have created a perfect killer. Fast forward to the United States after the war is over: Shaw is trying to extricate himself from the clutches of his overbearing mother, who is married to Senator Johnny Iselin, Raymond’s step-father. Iselin is a stooge, a man who is easily manipulated by his cunning wife. Iselin is gaining national popularity thanks to his claims that the United States government is overrun with Communists. (Iselin is a caricature of Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, who famously accused many people in the government of being Communist agents, but never actually found any Communist agents.) 

Ben Marco has been having strange dreams, the same dream every night, all about Shaw’s brainwashing. At first Shaw dismisses Marco’s story, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But the military takes Marco’s claims seriously after another solider from the same platoon has the same vivid nightmares. Marco’s challenge is to figure out who is controlling Shaw, and why. 

Puts and Campbell have created a vivid opera that will stay in your mind long after it’s over. The opera is just over two hours long, and it barrels forward with the momentum of a freight train. The music is superb, and the opera features excellent performances from all of the leads, especially Matthew Worth as Raymond Shaw, Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin, Raymond’s mother, and Leonardo Capalbo as Ben Marco. I saw Capalbo earlier in the Minnesota Opera’s season in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, as he gave an outstanding performance as Nemorino. 

The production design of The Manchurian Candidate was very strong, creating an opera with stunning and compelling visuals that added to the marvelous music. The decision to use filmed footage on screens above the stage adds to the intensity of the opera, and is reminiscent of the way that TV is used in Frankenheimer’s film. 

The Manchurian Candidate is an excellent new opera that will hopefully be seen as a contemporary classic.

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