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[whitespace] Sandra Rubalcava
Reluctant Royal: Marie (Sandra Rubalcava) reconsiders her dreams of marrying a prince.

Dark Dreams

OSJ's 'Nutcracker' offers more than sugarplum visions

By Michael J. Vaughn

OPERA SAN JOSÉ premiered its first-ever commissioned work this weekend, and one thing became readily apparent: this is not your father's Nutcracker.

Depending as contemporary operas do on modern chord progressions and their often-unsettling intervals, it makes sense that so many of the 20th century's best operas have dealt with dark subjects: Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Berg's Lulu, Menotti's The Consul. About now, with visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in your head, you might be thinking, "What, exactly, does this have to do with The Nutcracker?" The answer: everything. For their The Tale of the Nutcracker, composer Craig Bohmler and librettist Daniel Helfgot have astutely returned to E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story.

Bohmler's overture is a small deception, ringing with glockenspiel and other holiday fringes, but soon enough the score sombers up for Drosselmeier, Drossy for short (baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez), the genius toymaker. His dark prelude, "Little girls will dream," describes both the allure of dreams and the way they can trap you in their too-perfect worlds.

The tale's second theme is time, introduced by the father (bass Clifton Romig) in the touching nostalgia piece "I remember youth." The song serves as both a love song and a warning, since his daughter, Marie (soprano Sandra Rubalcava), seems too obsessed by her dreams of love and escape to enjoy her precious present.

The present she does enjoy is the nutcracker brought to her by her Uncle Drossy, an image of the very savior prince she sees in her dreams. After falling asleep with the doll in her arms, Marie awakens to a cacophony of horrific sounds and an army of hands trying to grab her through the walls, after which the life-size prince (tenor Thomas Truhitte) jumps out of the grandfather clock and beats the ghouls back with a pendulum sword.

It's here that Bohmler and Helfgot make an interesting decision of economy. Rather than take a promised voyage back to the prince's kingdom, the act goes dark with Marie and the prince entering the clock, followed by an Act II opening of Marie waking from a fever-induced dream.

Though the opera's dozens of odes to time and dreams weave an interesting philosophical web, they are often redundant, and I would gladly sacrifice three or four of them in favor of an early peek at this fantastical kingdom. Once we do arrive at the kingdom, the scene is dazzling indeed, a ravishing tableau of melting Dali-esque clocks, a backdrop of storming multicolored paint swipes, and a citizenry of lace-bedecked Mozartean courtiers.

Bohmler uses a very agreeable blend of modern tonal devices and traditional exposition/aria structures. He even uses the old trick of having Marie practice a Christmas song for her parents, thus affording his soprano a nice lyric showpiece. Bohmler also makes plentiful use of an excellent OSJ chorus, filling the nightmare scenes with a flurry of hisses and screams.

Rubalcava gives a delightful performance, endowing Marie with the roller-coaster emotions of your average adolescent. Vocally, she takes advantage of Bohmler's bursts of lyricism, particularly in a duet with Uncle Drossy.

Gomez lends a presence both magnanimous and ominous as the intricate Drosselmeir, and displays a baritone of great strength and range.

Barbara Day Turner and the orchestra gave a courageous reading of Bohmler's virgin score, featuring a beautiful solo by English horn player Patricia Mitchell in the second overture. The slightly off-kilter angles of Jean-Francois Revon's living room make a deft connection with his phantasmagorical dream sets, while costume designer Allison Connor gets to ramble all over the place, from the '50s Americana of the real-life scenes to the wild 18th-century-styled courtiers.

The Tale of the Nutcracker runs through Dec 5 at Montgomery Theater, San Carlos and Market streets, San Jose. Tickets are $35-$50. 408.437.4450.

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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