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The Mancurian Candidate – Thriller as Opera

One phrase I dislike almost whenever I hear it is “It’s not as good as the book” after watching a movie version of the story.

It’s hard to say precisely what rankles me about it. It strikes me as dismissive – most often the main complaint is that things were cut out. An insane thing to be uppity about unless you want to sit through a 10 hour movie.

What I am OK with is comparing two versions of a story in different media as long as you keep in mind the strengths and difficulties each storytelling mode provides.

I can already sense Becky shaking her head in disgust at my pretension so far 🙂

Anyway, this is all to say we went to the world premiere opera of “The Manchurian Candidate.”

I’m a huge fan, as is pretty much anyone who sees it, of the 1962 movie. I’m a sucker for conspiracy thrillers, and this one is the cream of the crop with an all time great performance by Angela Lansbury in one of the ultimate queen of horrible roles since Lady Macbeth. Top that off with fantastic editing, music, dialog and pretty much everything that makes a movie great.

So I was excited and anxious about this operatic version of the novel. Would it hold a candle to the movie? (I can’t speak to the book. Haven’t read it.)

The answer is, yes!

Yes, there are some things the movie does better – the dialog is sharper, the brainwashing scene is a master class in editing that simply can’t be done with the same impact on stage. The ending is much less confusing with the ability to cross cut between locations.

However, what the opera does well that movies don’t is theatricality. Opera can fill the air with sound and go big with emotions that don’t work on screen.

What it can’t do with harsh edits between realities, the Opera mimics with harsh transitions from creepy to flowery music. It’s like listening to Johnny Greenwood’s eerie There Will Be Blood score jump into Sound of Music’s Do-Re-Mi.

Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw, David Walton as Private Ed Mavole, Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco and Victoria Vargas as Mrs. Lowe in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. © 2015 Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera
Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw, David Walton as Private Ed Mavole, Leonardo Capalbo as Captain Ben Marco and Victoria Vargas as Mrs. Lowe in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. © 2015 Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera

For instance, one thing that never came across on screen for me was the romantic relationship with the senator’s daughter. By then, we’ve seen Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw as pretty much of a jerk to everyone he meets. So it’s hard to believe him as someone who could be smitten with anyone. This stretch of the movie seems long and tedious without the payoff it hopes to create.

The opera though, Oh my how it does justice to Jocelyn. The flashback is bathed in sepia. Jocelyn has the grace of a ballet dancer as she flits through Shaw’s early life. They even frame it with another actor playing the young Shaw while present day Shaw narrates, a stroke of awesome that helps to remove any barriers we may have of feeling for the acerbic character.

Later, we see two apartments divided by the lighting scheme, two potential targets. And oh my how the tension mounts as we know Shaw is heading to one or the other. (I knew, but Becky had not had any foreknowledge of the story other than the one time I showed her the brainwashing scene.) When Shaw arrives to assassinate other characters, Becky audibly cried out “no!”

Tension is one thing this Opera does well. The scenes slide quickly into one another at a breathless pace. The music, using an ostinato technique pointed out to us by the music director, takes advantage of a nearly constant repetition of a single note to slowly tighten the screws as the story inevitably heads toward its tragic/triumphant conclusion. That note is pretty noticable in this trailer for the opera:

This tension is also heightened by the staging, lighting and costumes. The stage itself is narrowed by enormous black walls, a large lighting rig halfway down illuminates the white square floor like a boxing ring. Heavy steel doors slide out of the way for entrances. Boxes within boxes – and all claustrophobic.Throughout, Matrix-like guys in suits would change out the scenery – reminding us how they are always present.

Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin, Daniel Sumegi as Senator Johnny Iselin and Company in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. © 2015 Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera
Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin, Daniel Sumegi as Senator Johnny Iselin and Company in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. © 2015 Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera

Above it all, three screens show current or pre-taped media images as they would be seen on 1960s televisions at the height of the red scare. When not in use, they often show white noise, symbolizing distraction and confusion. And throughout act II, the steel chair we first see Shaw brainwashed in remains on stage, used and unused, but always present and pulling him back.

The monochromatic stage along with the muted colors of nearly every character, makes the occurrences of red, particularly with Brenda Harris’ Elenaor Shaw Iselin. (Harris also played Lady Macbeth for the Minnesota Opera last year, so she has a knack for dark characters I’d say.) Her costumes, bright red, pastel blue, made her larger than life, a clear power symbol on stage, which she fulfilled with every fiber of her being. Jocelyn’s yellow color scheme also stood out – a respite from the power colors of the mother, and the one possible source of light in Raymond’s life.

Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw, Andrew Lovato as Young Raymond and Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. © 2015 Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera
Matthew Worth as Sergeant Raymond Shaw, Andrew Lovato as Young Raymond and Brenda Harris as Eleanor Iselin in the Minnesota Opera production of The Manchurian Candidate. © 2015 Michal Daniel for Minnesota Opera

The other place the opera excelled – any time duets or trios took place. The reading of Corporal Allen Melvin’s letter by Melvin, Shaw and Major Bennett Marco was wonderfully done – a powerhouse of a trio all coming to terms with proof that they are not going crazy, that they have been severely traumatized.

One reason why this is all so incredibly timely is there is always an entity to fear. There is always government bogeymen, no matter what your political leanings. The Iraq war, the fear of terrorists – all are a part of the Manchurian Candidate.

This opera was written by Mark Campbell and composed by Kevin Puts, the same pair that created the Pulitzer Prize winning Silent Night in 2011, also for the Minnesota Opera Company.

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