It is often said by those who disparage opera that, apart from being elitist, it is stuck in a rut, unable to get off the treadmill of Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Rossini, Mozart et al. While it is true that these composers dominate, it is also true to say that there is a lot of new material out there. In the Netherlands alone there are two or three companies specializing in taking a new more adventurous approach, often creating their own operas or reviving long-lost or obscure pieces. So it is good to see that this policy is being encouraged and ingrained into the next generation of singers being coached at the Dutch National Opera Academy in Amsterdam.
Transformations is a chamber opera in two acts by the American composer Conrad Susa with a libretto of ten poems by Anne Sexton from her 1971 book of the same name, a collection of confessional poetry based on stories by the Brothers Grimm. Commissioned by Minnesota Opera, the work, which is described by its composer as “An entertainment in two Acts”, had its world premiere 1973 in Minneapolis.
This production, sung in its original English, is staged by the young Dutch director Rennik-Jan Neggers and conducted by Sam Weller (graduate of the National Masters in Orchestral Conducting) and is performed by students of the Academy, a two year master’s programme which gives equal emphasis to acting and singing. There are eight characters in Transformations and a different group of singers performs on different nights so as to give everyone a chance.
The author of the piece, Anne Sexton, describes herself as the “mother of the insane” and so, unsurprisingly, sets her adaptation of the fairy stories in a lunatic asylum where each story is used to illustrate and describe individual medical cases. The Anne Sexton character is there as a sort of chorus figure, linking and guiding us through the different episodes. The device of having lunatics enact a story is not new and was first used by Peter Weiss in his 1963 play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, usually shortened to Marat/Sade, and the idea works well adding another, slightly disturbing dimension to a story – is the piece about its characters or the people who portray them?
All the favourite stories are there – The Golden Key, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (slightly less than 7 in this production), The White Snake, Iron Hans, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Godfather Death, The Wonderful Musician, Hansel and Gretel and Briar Rose. Before Sexton relates the tales, she presents a clinical case and introduces each one of them. In short prologues she describes patients with their symptoms, which transform and modernise the relevant fairy tale that follows.
It is well known that although the German brothers’ fairy tales were written ostensibly for children there is another sinister dimension to them, a much darker side with which any psychiatrist would have had a field day – Grimm by name, grim by nature.
This production, in the Amare’s Conservatoriumzaal is quite simple and uncluttered. Performed in the round on a square chequered platform with the small orchestra against the back wall, the characters, apart from the Anne Sexton one, are uniformly dressed in simple beige and turquoise costumes which are augmented – a crown here, a cape there – to reflect the content and protagonists of each story. Although there was no scenery and few props I think the production would have greatly benefited from more imaginative lighting to create more drama and delineate the sequences. The orchestra played nicely although upstaged by the percussionist whose array of shiny metallic instruments resembled a small oil refinery. The performers sang and acted well enough and on the whole the production was successful, which certainly bodes well for the future of opera in The Netherlands. Michael Hasted 8th February 2024
Photo by and © Reinout Bos