The premiere of Fairy Tales: Songs of the Dandelion Woman by Carson Kievman by his SoBe Institute of the Arts was an unexpected surprise. Part song cycle, part opera, this musical theater work is a shattering experience and, despite the title, definitely for adults only.
The intimacy of the 100-seat Little Stage Theater in Miami Beach brings the audience right into this story of mental illness masquerading as normalcy.
Composer-librettist Kievman has created a tale of an emotionally fragile young heiress who has retreated into her own parallel existence in New York. Far from a conventional bag lady suffering from dementia, this heroine — the “Dandelion Woman” of the title — is a smart dresser and lives in a spiffy Greenwich Village apartment. She retreats each evening into a private world of notebooks filled with pictures and newspaper clippings. Her family has hired a bank examiner to assess her mental competence to handle financial affairs, and the pressures of his investigation lead to his own trip down a dark psychological rabbit hole.
In Thursday night’s performance, Kievman’s terse 70-minute work delivered great dramatic punch. His music can be challenging for performers and audiences alike, yet its diverse stylistic palette grips the attention and reflects the often-bizarre plot line. A wordless a capella vocalise introduces the heroine with a repetitive melody mirroring her mental disintegration. Kievman’s score is chock full of allusions to the musical past with references to Rachmaninoff and Villa-Lobos that turn slightly off kilter.
The Dandelion Woman’s music veers between extremes, her random thoughts bathed in moments of plangent lyricism interrupted by shouts of pain echoing the Schoenberg of Pierrot Lunaire and Erwartung. Interludes of waltz music, throbbing minimalism and neo-Classical vigor accompany her moments of lucidity. A 1950s sitcom on the television monitor becomes an operetta pastiche with the blond-wigged heroine and bank examiner as husband and wife singing imitations of Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. In his boldest stroke, Kievman suddenly turns this happy scene into a hospital room with the bank examiner in complete mental collapse and the Dandelion Woman as his nurse, as the music loses its tonal center. His final words “I’m lost” are accompanied by traffic noises over speakers, leaving the audience stunned.
In the title role, Meagan Brus dominates the stage with a frightening emotional intensity. Her brilliant flights of coloratura dazzle the ear but the strength of her middle voice evokes the woman’s pathos and helplessness. A vocal and dramatic tour de force, her performance is a singular triumph. As the more buttoned-down examiner, Kenneth Mattice brings a baritone of power and verbal subtlety to a journey of tragic dimensions.
Kievman’s writing for an eight-member instrumental ensemble, placed behind the set, is dense and busy with glints of color from tubular bells and winds. Mary Adelyn Kauffman conducted with taut urgency.
High marks to director Jeffrey Marc Buchman (whose riveting staging of Andy Vores’ No Exit for Florida Grand Opera was a highlight of the season). Buchman’s production never flagged in momentum, with the protagonists’ turmoil conveyed in strong dramatic strokes. Stunning projections of geometric images and the heroine’s notebooks by Alain Lores, Jorge E. Lega and Barbara Gutierrez were eye-filling additions to Sean McClelland’s handsome set.
In a season that has seen more 20- and 21st-century opera in South Florida than in the last two decades combined, Kievman’s opus is a stunner. It deserves wider performances beyond the current Miami Beach run.