BWW Reviews: SF Opera's SECRET GARDEN Could Use Some More Work

San Francisco Opera's new commission, a modern opera take on the classic children's story, "The Secret Garden," has trouble fully blooming. Littered with beautiful lilies and roses of moments, the opera waits until its second act to really let its music breathe.

The recent "Moby Dick" exemplified modern opera's ability to pull out magnificent melodies behind the clashing experimental tones the genre is known for. "Secret Garden" has both, but almost every time the pieces of a potential aria arrive, sung dialogue pushes them out of the way.

SF Opera and co-producer Cal Performances achieved one goal, however. The opera's world premiere weekend attracted many children, and the general adult audience seemed pleased with the final product. One young attendee boasted to those nearby how much she enjoyed her first opera experience and told of her desire to return for another opera. Other children whispered to their parents with curious questions as they devoured the action on stage.

Composer Nolan Gasser and lyricist Carey Harrison pace the story well, with the opera lasting just over two hours long with intermission, a perfect length for young audience members. It's a simplified telling compared to other adaptations. The plot follows young, orphaned Mary Lennox, sent to live at her uncle's dark mansion in England after her parents die of cholera in India. A short prologue in India starts on a strong note with catchy, repetitious rhythms, which return a few times throughout the show. But the rushed cholera segment begins to showcase the musical weaknesses of the score. A nearly non-existent overture and awkward intermission cut-off hamper the production a bit.

Strong moments return during Mary's "Secret Garden Theme Song," Colin's solo that he might make a man yet, a letter scene between Mrs. Sowerby and Mr. Craven, and a grand finale. The production also excels in its casting choices. Sarah Shafer gives the illusion of youth with her child-like expressions and giddy joy, taking viewers on a journey as her character transforms from a selfish, lonely girl to a happy child who gives and lives life. Scott Joiner gives Mary's nature-loving friend, Dickon, pure energy. Michael Kepler Meo twists his shoulders and moves his body, perfectly portraying Colin, Mary's sickly cousin. Laura Krumm and Marina Harris exude love as Martha and Susan Sowerby, Mary's maid and governess. In the few short moments he has on stage, Philippe Sly captivates the audience with Craven's self-inflicted solitary confinement. Ao Li adds comic relief playing gardener Ben Weatherstaff. Erin Johnson makes a formidable Mrs. Medlock. And they all come with fabulous voices.

Equally striking are the visually arresting sets, mostly reliant on projections of impressionistic paintings and actual recordings of gardens and hills, contribute much to the spectacle of the opera. The projections look 3D on the solid background pieces, and they add movement to the roll-on set pieces made to look like bushes and shrubberies. But on the production's thin curtains, the images more resemble a 3D film viewed without the special glasses. And spotlights often blot out the colors, while shadows crossing the projectors are obvious. A few technical problems made themselves evident at Saturday night's performance, as well.

Overall, the colorful projections and lively cast make the generally pleasurable music and long-time favorite story enjoyable. Unfortunately, this rendition of "The Secret Garden" lacks power to deeply move its audience and comes across as a work in progress rather than a finished and perfected product.


Through March 10
Presented by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances
At Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkley

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler