Devil’s in the Details

'The Thirteenth Child' at the Santa Fe Opera

When I sat down with Santa Fe Opera General Director Robert Meya in the spring to talk about the upcoming season, we ran through the list of this year's productions and spoke about each of the stagings. When we got to The Thirteenth Child, I said, "And the 13th child is the devil, right?"

Meya was totally taken aback. He stared at me somewhat blankly, and stuttered some kind of "no" and that he had no idea what I was talking about, then explained to me the Brothers Grimm-based fairy-tale plot of the heroic 13th child, a princess who rescues her brothers from banishment.

I realized upon returning home that the whole 13th-child-is-Satan thing is overflow from my childhood in New Jersey, where our storied mythological beast of the Jersey Devil is rumored to be the cursed 13th child of destitute Mother Leeds. The only two people I'd bounced the plot of this opera off of prior to my meeting with Meya were my parents, also lifelong New Jerseyans—so they confirmed my hazy knowledge that a 13th child of legend is always the devil. Honest mistake, right?

I say all this because, to be honest, the origin story of a goat-footed flying demon in the swamps of my home state would likely have been a more engaging tale than The Thirteenth Child.

It brings me no pleasure to discuss how much I struggled with this production, the Santa Fe Opera's 16th world premiere. To review such a flawed piece from a company I respect so deeply makes me nervous—but hey, it's my job.

It has an impressive pedigree; composer Poul Ruders is also the mind behind the in-demand opera version of The Handmaid's Tale, and he wrote this piece with librettists Becky and David Starobin not due to a commission, but just because they felt compelled to do so. That passion to create without a venue lined up already should have dictated an exciting and fervent piece, right?

Well, should have.

Instead, what we got was unfortunately an impossibly slow, non-engaging piece that featured many singers in low, hard-to-hear ranges, a simplistic libretto that I'm shocked took two people to write, and a halfway-there staging from director Darko Tresnjak. The opera ran about 80 minutes, but for the amount of action that occurred onstage and the speed at which it was sung (in English, which is notoriously clunky in opera anyway), it probably could have been compressed with an hour to spare.

One of the biggest draggy elements of this piece was a combination of the lack of acting on the singers' parts and the stagnant blocking throughout. In the opening scene, where King Hjarne (bass David Leigh, who was barely audible most of the time due to his low register) is losing his faculties and becomes particularly susceptible to the power-grabbing actions of his cousin Drokan (Bradley Garvin). Hjarne sings that his 12 sons will surely overtake him and steal the throne. Interludes in falsetto intended to communicate the sinister duality of his addled mind didn't have the intended effect, as the audience giggled.

His wife Queen Gertrude (Tamara Mumford, mezzo-soprano) comes to him, begging, "Withhold your rage"—a line that I jotted down in my notebook with question marks next to it. What rage? He doesn't seem that mad. The slow pace and lack of characterization for Hjarne and Drokan, not to mention that they mostly stood in one place as they sang, made us follow the story based on their words alone—and they flowed so slowly that the plot crawled along at an impossible pace.

Have you ever tried to ride a bike alongside a friend who's walking? It was like that.

Similarly, in the second act, when the princess Lyra (soprano Jessica E Jones) is now searching for her 12 brothers, she sings at the opening: "No one to talk to, no one to hold, no one to love me in my grief. … 'Lyra, find your brothers.' Those were your words. Who will find me?"

I guess I was a bit salty by this point, because my scribbled notes say: "Who cares?"

OK, that was harsh. But I felt no real connection to Lyra, or to any of the characters for that matter, and the libretto gave us absolutely no help by way of establishing feelings for the fairy-tale archetypes we saw onstage. We are told what happens rather than shown anything at all. Hjarne informs us dryly that he is paranoid that his children are out to get him; we don't see it. Drokan enters always with a menacing shadow on the opposite wall, dressed in green and surrounded by projected snakes; we don't really learn viscerally that he is to be feared.

Perhaps I was too wrapped up in my expectation of a lively, jaunty, flashy Into The Woods type of production, but this was so far to the opposite that I think even unreasonable expectations coming in can be excused.

There were a few bright spots. Projections on the unique set helped fill space left by a lack of interesting movement from the singers, and Lyra's brother Benjamin (tenor Bille Bruley) was perhaps the only lively character in the production, lighting up the stage briefly until he too succumbed to scantily developed plot points.

The orchestra, conducted by the animated Paul Daniel, helped keep the production afloat, such as it was. The lush, downright cinematic instrumentation, while it often drowned out the singers onstage, was tight and beautifully traditional. It was reminiscent of classic films of fairy tales, a nice throwback to the grainy VHS tapes we watched incessantly as children. I only wish the action onstage could have matched.

The Thirteenth Child
Four performances through Aug. 21. $47-$320.
Santa Fe Opera,
301 Opera Drive,

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