The premise of The Manchurian Candidate, subject of a novel, two movies and now a terrific new opera seen this summer at upstate New York’s Seagle Music Colony, has always been shocking. However, in 2019, one could ask whether this tale is a relic of the Cold War or has some modern relevance.
|The cast in rehearsal for The Manchurian Candidate.
Photo: North Country Public Radio
In Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, five American soldiers are kidnapped by Russian and Chinese Communist agents and subjected to mind control experiments aimed at unleashing them as assassins within the United States. The story reflected the West’s anxiety about the various forms Communist aggression might take – including “brainwashing,” which according to one account could transform a man into “a living puppet – a human robot.”
The opera, with music by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell, opens with a single note, repeated hypnotically, that will become the brainwashing theme. (The performance was accompanied by two excellent pianists, John Cockerill and Eric Frei, conducted by Jennifer McGuire)
Three U.S. Army officers and two privates are seated in an interrogation room. Incongruously, eight ladies in flowered dresses and hats are also in the room – the products of their hallucinating minds which, we are told, believe they are at a party given by “the Ladies Garden Club of Northern New Jersey.”
The chief interrogator shows off the prize – Sergeant Raymond Shaw (sung by the commanding Thomas Lynch), who is “triggered” by seeing the queen of diamonds playing card, and on command kills the two privates. “He can kill and kill again without memory of it. He has no guilt or fear,” sings the interrogator (Katherine Kincaid).
|The 1962 movie.
The music enters unsettling territory, with the “garden ladies” singing a pretty choral background as terrible acts unfold. “Americans are easy,” sings the interrogator, to musical snippets of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The other men, including Captain Ben Marco (the very affecting Andrew McGowan) do not react, being in trance states.
Subsequently, Shaw and Marco return to the U.S., greeted as “heroes” at the airport by Shaw’s relentlessly ambitious mother, Eleanor Iselin (Ashlee Lamar), and her husband, Senator Johnny Iselin (Reno Wilson, a handsome guy who manages to be appropriately oily in this character).
Iselin is aiming for a vice-presidential nomination at the upcoming Republican national convention, and is riding a campaign of McCarthy-like anti-Communist fervor. Meanwhile, Marco is disturbed by strange dreams, echoing his interrogation and brainwashing.
Baritone Lynch and tenor McGowan convincingly portray the anguish of men who are being torn apart psychologically by toxic political forces. Lynch will kill again, destroying his happiness with the woman he loves, Jocelyn Jordan (beautifully played and sung by soprano Melaina Mills), before he is stopped.
Soprano Lamar unleashes a formidable stage presence and a tornado of emotion as Eleanor Iselin, especially in her soliloquy at the end of Act I. Believing her plans for her husband are being blocked, her rage and frustration comes across as a combination of Lady Macbeth and Mama Rose, overlaid with political rhetoric – “We are at war. Choose between right and freedom.”
However, things are not what they seem in this story – on many levels, including Eleanor’s – and there are no easy solutions. As the storylines wind to tragic conclusions, the opera’s final lines are, “I’m scared,” and “I am, too.”
Director Richard Kagey’s pace never flags, propelled by music that uses compelling dissonance accented by moments of tonal beauty. Designer Jim Koehnle’s set – brown flats on a turntable that effectively changes scenes – also uses five 1950s-style television screens to broadcast several scenes as they are taking place. Costume designer Pat Seyller’s work particularly shines in the women’s beautifully-patterned 1950s dresses.
This work was presented at Seagle as a venture of its American Center for New Works Development, which has in the last few years supported such exciting new operas as Roscoe and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Seagle Colony itself, now in its second century in Schroon Lake, N.Y., is a summer training program for emerging opera singers.
So is The Manchurian Candidate, reimaged as an opera, relevant to our times? We might think that the work was inspired by the controversies surrounding Russian influence on President Trump and whether he is in thrall to Vladimir Putin’s government for some yet-unknown reason. (“Americans are easy.”)
Perhaps Puts and Campbell were thinking of Trump’s rhetoric (“Make/Keep America Great”) and fervid rallies. (The political slogan in The Manchurian Candidate is “Our Time Has Come.”)
However, the 1959 novel was made into feature films in 1962 and 2004 – and this opera premiered at Minnesota Opera in 2015, well before Trump’s win in the 2016 election.
Throughout the opera, its relevance to today’s political scene is astonishing. Clearly demagoguery never disappears. It is part of the human condition and can only be fought to a standstill.