Becoming Santa Claus, a new opera by composer Mark Adamo, is a delightfully inventive and over-the-top holiday show that explores Santa’s backstory with wit and whimsy. While most operas are collaborative efforts between a librettist (who typically adapts a pre-existing story from a book, play, or myth) and a composer (who supplies the music), Becoming Santa Claus is entirely the product of Adamo’s vivid imagination. The plot of the opera was his idea (“Why not portray Santa Claus as the original materialistic kid?”), he penned the opulent, rhyming lyrics, and he imaged the wild musical score that drifts from Broadway to rap to Handelian bel canto to twentieth-century atonality and back again.
If it sounds crazy, well, musically it most definitely is. In the orchestra pit there is a piano tuned a quarter tone down next to one that is not, a harpsichord plucking along with baroque intensity, and some massively complicated passagework for woodwinds and brass to navigate. It seems as if Adamo, aware of the sugary fluff that often characterizes holiday music, made a conscious decision to flex his compositional muscles here. This may be a Christmas opera, but you won’t find any carols or schmaltzy waltzes here.
Adamo’s wacky ideas for the score work more often than not. Claus’s magical childhood kingdom sparkles with mystery thanks to inventive orchestration. His mother, Queen Sophine, is all the more convincing a sorceress when her songs and spells are accompanied by unusual tunings. The music they each must sing, too, is at times remarkably difficult. Adamo uses soaring bel canto vocal lines to paint vivid emotional imagery (young Claus’s aria “Toys” is packed with as many notes on the “oy” as gifts in his sleigh). The effect is somewhat overused, as are many of Adamo’s musical acrobatics in this piece, but the result is an entirely unique sound-world.
The Dallas Opera’s world-premiere production of this opera is top-notch. Designer Gary McCann did a spectacular job of translating Adamo’s opulent musical and literary ideas into visually appealing sets and costumes. He plays with scale smartly, placing the busy elves under a massive lamp that magically shrinks them. The Queen, even when suffering from a champagne-fueled hangover, sparkles in stunning blue and white gowns with elegant trains, dangerously long nails and an icicle-inspired updo. Hair and makeup designer David Zimmerman’s colorful additions to the elves’ costumes are spot-on.
The stage direction in this production, too, is fabulous. Paul Curran choreographed every moment meticulously and drew the best possible acting from this cast, who skillfully portrayed each shift in emotion and attitude. The elves in particular didn’t shy away from very physical acting, and Curran used the opera’s four dancers (dressed as toys) inventively.
The cast for this opera is small and consists of just three main characters (Claus, Queen Sophine and a Donkey/Messenger) and a chorus of four elves. While Claus and Queen Sophine are at the center of the plot and have the most memorable arias, the elves are the lifeblood of this work. Played exquisitely by Hila Plitmann, Lucy Schaufer, Keith Jameson and Kevin Burdette, this elven quartet was exquisitely tight both musically and dramatically. They are the comic relief, yes, but they are also the engines that drive the plot along and their relationship with Claus makes his character all the more believable. They’re also just a lot of fun to watch.
As Claus, tenor Jonathan Blalock is outstanding. His crystalline voice and petulant mood make him instantly believable as the 13-year-old Claus. Blalock has to navigate tricky turns both musically and emotionally and he does so beautifully. The role of Queen Sophine was created by Adamo with soprano Jennifer Rivera specifically in mind and she has some of the more memorable musical moments of this work (her aria “Sisters of the Night” is particular gorgeous). But surprisingly, her voice seemed the least well-suited to the demands of this opera. Adamo gave her (and every character) some incredibly difficult music to sing and his orchestration was consistently rich and complex underneath their lines. It was hard to hear Rivera at times, especially when she was singing in lower registers. I found myself wishing Adamo had trimmed a few of his brilliant ideas, both lyrically and musically, in order to allow for a little more clarity.
With a remarkably strong cast, visually stunning production, spectacular stage direction and fantastic conducting and playing from the pit, The Dallas Opera pulled off this very complex work. Because all of the details were so carefully rehearsed, the piece came off as entertaining and touching as it was meant to be. It’s merry, it’s bright, and, in the best possible, most imaginative ways, it is very, very Adamo.