Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble 2019 Festival Review: Princess Maleine
Bea Goodwin & Whitney George Have Created An Opera That Should Stick Around For Years To ComeBy Chris Ruel
There are times when we experience something very special, almost historical. This was the case at the world premiere of “Princess Maleine,” a new opera staged by the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble.
The premiere was part of Dell’Arte’s 2019 festival, “Voices from the Tower.” The series, as described by Artistic Director Chris Fecteau, is “dedicated to the female creative voices who have nurtured the art form of opera from the beginning, and whose gifts we are fortunate to enjoy.” Composer Whitney George and librettist Bea Goodwin’s gifts were on full display during the August 16 premiere performance.
George’s score was, at times, lush with nods to Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” and film composer Danny Elfman. At other points, the intricate rhythmic eccentricities of John Adams’ “Fearful Symmetries” punctuated the action on stage with crisp spiccato and staccato strings, harp, piano, and various percussion.
Rather than wading too deep into the musical waters of post-tonality, George emphasizes the familiar while simultaneously refreshing it with her creative spin. She also took a musical approach straight from Wagner and film scoring. Wagner was, in many ways, the progenitor of cinematic music. Why should such a style be banished from contemporary opera? It shouldn’t, and it was very refreshing to hear it return. However, to drive the story forward, George didn’t linger in lushness. She utilized unrelenting staccato rhythms and less tonality to keep things moving at a brisk pace.
George made her chamber orchestra sound far more substantial than the 14 musicians under her baton. The cinematic qualities of her score were especially evident as a deliciously malevolent leitmotif announced trouble on the horizon—trouble most often connected with the actions of Queen Anne of Jutland, the thrillingly icy matriarch played by contralto Liz Bouk.
Dell’Arte Takes a Chance
George’s beguiling score set the perfect backdrop for Goodwin’s masterful and spellbinding storytelling. Goodwin’s story was based on the play “La Princesse Maleine,” written by Maurice Maeterlinck, author of “Pelléas et Mélisandre,” and the fairy tale entitled “The Maid Maleine” published by the Brothers Grimm. The early 20th-century composer Lili Boulanger transformed Maeterlinck’s play into an opera, but, unfortunately, nearly all of it was lost. George and Goodwin didn’t adapt Boulanger’s work; they didn’t re-tell it; they re-created something from scratch.
Over the short span of nine months, the George/Goodwin duo went from having little-to-nothing with which to work to a fully-staged opera. That an opera went from concept to premiere in under a year could spell disaster for most productions. Thankfully, Dell’ Arte took a significant risk, and it paid off. The only tragedy that occurred was the one unfolding between the characters in this stunning piece of opera theater.
The premise of the story is familiar enough; two royal houses are on the brink of war. King Hjalmar of Ysselmonde wrestles for power against King Marcellus of Harlingen. One evening, during a soiree, the Prince of Hjalmar falls immediately in love with the Princess Maleine of Harlingen. But King Marcellus, Maleine’s father, wants to ally with the Duke of Burgundy, yet Maleine refuses the marriage.
War drums sound and Marcellus blames his daughter for the coming battle. For her obedience to love and disobedience toward her father, Maleine is locked away in a tower. However, that which her father intended as punishment, actually saves his daughter and preserves the family line as Hjalmar annihilates Marcellus’ family.
Princess Maleine, played by expertly by soprano Elyse Anne Kakacek, doesn’t waste away, pining in her stone prison, waiting for a knight in shining armor to save her. Instead, she escapes from the tower of her own volition with the help of her faithful lady-in-waiting, Aletta, sung by mezzo Nicholle Bittlingmeyer. However, what awaits the princess and her dear friend is desolation. The two are now homeless and must find their way in a hostile world. They cannot rely on others—they must grow their sense of self-sufficiency and agency or wander about the woods, hoping to be found.
In addition to Goodwin’s commentary on female self-agency, the librettist makes clear that our common plight is that of foolishness. Who better than the character of a jester to put an exclamation point on the idea that all is folly? The Fool, sung by countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum, is ever-present; he dances with courtiers; he guides the distressed Princess Maleine to safety, but he also leads her to her doom.
Towards the end of Act one, Maleine reunites with Prince Hjalmar in a garden under the light of the moon—a motif used throughout the opera to signify beauty and hope. The lovers’ meeting is unintended, brought about by the guidance of the Fool. Their rendezvous spoils King Hjalmar’s consort, Queen Anne of Jutland’s plan to marry the prince to her daughter Ursula. The act closes with the Prince Hjalmar renouncing Ursula and the king collapsing to the ground, weak and enfeebled as catastrophe looms.
There are no holes in Goodwin’s plot. Themes and situations are introduced and not left hanging; there’s always a pay-off when there’s a set-up. The moon and the stars, signifying the beauty of the heavens and love in the first act, turn hideous to Maleine in the second. Goodwin’s use of a child playing with a kite guides the audience to an understanding that the kite is a metaphor of the self. We are urged to rise above the folly of earth and into the heavens, ascending on a breeze of self-agency.
I believe at the heart of Goodwin’s twist on the patriarchal damsel-in-distress trope is the importance of female selfhood and agency, ideas that are, at this moment in time, on the rise. The movement is climbing, refusing to be held down, lifting away like the kite from the traditional roles imposed upon women. It is not Princess Maleine’s assertion of her selfhood that incites the war between King Marcellus and King Hjalmar. It is their folly and taste for violent conflict that blinds them to the opportunity for peace through Maleine’s love for Prince Hjalmar.
Act Two Packs a Wallop
A heaviness descends in the second act though all begins happily with the discovery of a friendly, homeless dog on a nearby beach. Aletta names the dog Pluto. A nod to Disney’s fairy tales? Nope. Aletta jokes that Pluto, the god of the underworld has arrived. Indeed, he has. Goodwin uses this playful bit to foreshadow the violence to follow as death eventually lays claim to the souls of Maleine, Queen Anne, and Prince Hjalmar.
Before we come to the horrific conclusion, the Fool relates to Maleine that she is pregnant with the prince’s son. King Hjalmar, gradually comes to accept Princess Maleine as his daughter-in-law, and Queen Anne of Jutland seethes in the background, having none of it.
It can be easy —and I’ll argue lazy— to point to the angel/demon female character trope with Maleine playing the angel and Queen Anne the demon. As ruthless as Queen Anne is, she is exercising her agency, and in the land of kingdoms and dynastic rule, she is working to solidify the power of her people and preserve the integrity of bloodline. Is that so wrong?
In the end, Queen Anne strangles Maleine, killing her and her unborn child. The queen is then knifed by the grief-stricken Prince Hjalmar before he turns the knife on himself. Three of the six principals go down in less than five minutes. That’s quick by opera standards. No one lingers at the edge of death for a half-hour, they just die. It’s a bit shocking.
For an opera that is attempting to reset the traditional female role in opera, the fact that the women die seems incongruous with the overall point. However, in many operas, the death of the female lead(s) are the result of some form of punishment. Violetta is a prostitute, and Manon is much the same; Carmen is a femme fatale. I viewed Princess Maleine’s death at the hand of Queen Anne as brought about by competing interests of self-agency. The two died because they chose to chart their paths, roads not paved by the patriarchy. You could point out that Prince Hjalmar’s murder of Queen Anne fits the traditional male-kills-female formula, and I’d have a hard time arguing against the idea. But does it subvert Goodwin’s attempt to turn the tide in how women are portrayed in opera? I don’t believe it does.
The dramaturgical notes ask what the world may think of the George/Goodwin collaboration 100 years into the future. My answer is much the same as dramaturgist Marianna Mott Newirth wrote in the program notes: Only time will tell. “Princess Maleine” marks a return to tried and true operatic musical and storytelling devices. There are duets, choruses, trios, solos. Goodwin’s story is grand and tragic. “Princess Maleine,” like the great operas of the past, thoroughly explores the entire range of human emotion, and that’s what opera is all about—the human experience writ large.
Soprano Elyse Anne Kakacek was captivating in the title role as she floated her voice into the heavens with a feathery tone. As Maleine longed to be reunited with Prince Hjalmar, her voice was injected with sweet pathos. When all turned tragic, you felt for Maleine because Kakacek drew you into the character’s joys and sorrows. Kakacek projected confidence in her instrument and a deep understanding of her character’s motivations.
Nicholle Bittlingmeyer’s Aletta was an excellent counter to Kakacek’s Maleine. I viewed Aletta as Maleine’s other-self, the embodiment of Maleine’s inner voice, fighting for control. She chastised Maleine for bucking the norms, resulting in the two of them getting locked away in a tower. But Bittlingmeyer wasn’t a one-dimensional, whiny, finger-wagging alter ego. She revealed herself to be smart, playful, and boisterous in later scenes as she found her own sense of agency.
Tenor Jeremy Brauner’s Prince Hjalmar had great nuance in both his acting and singing. None of his emotions seemed forced or in any way unnatural. His singing was full of brass, rich and powerful.
Contralto Liz Bouk’s Queen Anne was a performance to remember. At times he demonstrated the cold as ice matriarch, while at others he brought out the more playful aspects of the character — such as when the queen dances the tango with her future son-in-law. Bouk’s stage presence was regal with the right touch of menace. I place Queen Anne alongside the Queen of the Night in terms of likable villains. Bouk pulled off one of the more difficult aspects of the character, revealing to the audience that Queen Anne wasn’t a simple villain devoid of depth.
Playing opposite Bouk was Eric Lindsey as King Hjalmar. The thunderous power of his voice amplified his regality, but he was also able to tone it down enough to display the king’s frailty and ultimate regret at what his folly had wrought.
Last, but far from least, is The Fool, sung by countertenor Jeffrey Mandelbaum. Mandelbaum is an incredibly gifted singer with a light voice and a commanding presence. He worked the stage – dancing, prancing, and sometimes creeping around. What I enjoyed about his performance was that he wasn’t all about the laughs. He took the meaning behind his character seriously.
I hope that other companies, large and small, see this opera as a gem to add to their repertoire. It deserves to stick around.