After a two-year pandemic-imposed delay, Edward Tulane, Paola Prestini’s opera with librettist Mark Campbell (The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Stonewall, and Silent Night), had its belated premiere at Minnesota Opera in 2022. Based on Kate DiCamillo’s best-selling fairy-tale novel about magic and transformation, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, the opera is the first work by a woman commissioned by Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative.
Edward Tulane tells the tale of a 3½-foot-tall stuffed rabbit (tenor Jack Swanson) who begins his journey surrounded by love. All too soon, he is ripped away — literally — from Abilene (soprano Zulimar López-Hernández), the young girl who names him Edward Tulane and loves him deeply. From drowning in the sea to being forced by a busker to dance for crowds, Edward passes from person to person and is renamed time and time again, getting tossed, turned, battered, and spiritually beaten along his journey. Finally, when he seems destined to languish forever in a doll shop and all hope of belonging seems lost, he allows his heart to open once again to love. What happens after that is somewhat predictable but quite touching all the same.
The opera, recorded live at its premiere and available in CD and digital formats from VIA Records, features Prestini’s distinctive but less than warm and fuzzy musical language. There are certainly major chords in this opera, as well as some genuinely touching moments, but much of it is filled with discord. Prestini, co-founder and artistic director of the famed Brooklyn new-music venue National Sawdust, does a fine job creating a mystical atmosphere in which both lightness and darkness loom. But even when all seems right at the end and triangles jangle jubilantly, joy and dazzle are punctuated by a note of discord that seems to question the possibility of happiness ever after.
That, at least, is how I hear things. Perhaps judgment would be less harsh if the recording were filled with warmth. But it’s not, even on my somewhat warm sound system. Nor is the recording helped by too-distant microphone placement. There’s also a lot of subsonic bass rumbling caught by microphones presumably placed on the floor of the stage.
The Minnesota audience clearly had a ball, laughing broadly during the comic moments in the first part of the opera and sitting in rapt silence through the dramatic sections. Campbell’s delightful libretto offers plenty of opportunities for scenic delights as well as solo arias, ensembles, and choruses. The video clips on Minnesota Opera’s YouTube channel make a strong case for the work’s appeal.
In a cast of 15 singers (in which 12 play two or more parts), Swanson’s strong, clear, and youthful tenor stands out for its beauty, emotional resonance, and ability to cope admirably with Edward Tulane’s highest-lying lines. Bass Zachary James, who plays the Witch — of course there’s a witch — stands out both vocally and histrionically (James also plays the role of doll repairman Lucius Clarke). Most of the other cast members are not on their level, with a preponderance of mediocre singing. Lidiya Yankovskaya conducts the Minnesota Opera Orchestra and Chorus with excellence.