A Good Cast Works Hard in Yeltsin in Texas

Who knew a grocery store trip could change the course of history?
Photo by Pin Lim
Who knew a grocery store trip could change the course of history?
Opera world premieres don't grow on trees. They're expensive, time consuming, and usually a logistic nightmare to prepare. Also they're a big gamble. With yet another production of Boheme at least the design team and the audience know what to expect. When it's set on Mars, that's another problem all together.

We applaud Opera in the Heights for its inaugural program, New Works Festival, a two-weekend celebration of three world premieres. If opera doesn't grow it will die. Unfortunately with Yeltsin in Texas, opera takes a big step backward. Go see it now, for I doubt you will ever have another opportunity. It's going to fade very fast. It disappeared from memory as I watched it.

Composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire have been a team since 2013. Yeltsin is their fifth collaboration, a supposed opera buffa, that rowdy form of operatic comedy made famous by Rossini and Donizetti. It should be sprightly, fast, filled with patter song (think Gilbert & Sullivan), and is anchored more often with a basso role as comic foil. Can't say Yeltsin hits any of these highs. Although it is short, 65 minutes, it feels as cumbersome as a 19th-century French grand opera.

Yet it has a great subject, a true story ripe for anarchy and vaudeville. After a diplomatic tour to NYC and the Johnson Space Center, both of which left him completely unimpressed (We had the first cosmonauts, he said at the time), Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin asked to visit a grocery store. No one seems to know why he wanted to see one, but he made a surprise stop at a Randall's in Clear Lake. What greeted him was an eye-opening Land of Oz. The abbreviated tour changed the future of Russia. The sheer quantity of food and consumer goods humbled him deeply and filled him with shame for his country which could not provide for its citizens. An aide, Lev Sukhanov, later described a troubled and depressed Yeltsin in which “the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed.” The Soviet Union soon dissolved under Yeltsin, spurred in no small part by the cornucopia of an average American grocery store.

To be fair, I don't know what Mack  and McGuire set out to do with this work. The tone is all over the place. It wants to be a knockoff Wizard of Oz, with Yeltsin as a drunk Dorothy in some make-believe land of plenty, with a Cowardly Lion security guard, a Scarecrow of lowly clerk, and, I don't know, a Tin Man of store manager? It doesn't work at all, even with wisps of “Over the Rainbow” threaded into certain scenes. It's too easy, too cheap. It's adolescent in the worst way, with fourth grade naughty sex jokes to make you twitter, and way too many '60s commercial jingles that burst through the meager plot and get in the way.

It could have been – and the bones are there – a South Park-type show, full of scabrous non-PC fun. Fun that makes you gasp with audaciousness and makes you think. What I suppose you might call Adult humor, something worthy of our laughter. Yeltsin is all sophomore high jinks with scant parody. The audience had a great time, though, relishing the stale jokes and roaring during a little empty scene about “pounding his meat.” Comic opera isn't going far with humor like this.

There are two or three different operas swirling through Yeltsin, and the creators don't have a clue how to reconcile them. Boris has two serious arias of homesickness and remembrance that are the finest things in the opera, plangent and true, deep and meaningful. But the songs come out of nowhere and go back to nowhere, diminished by the surrounding stupid antics. Is this the same opera? The patter songs are somewhat worthy of the great G&S, where products, like every brand of cola, are listed ad infinitum. No wonder Yeltsin's head spins. Ours does too at the sheer bulk of what we can purchase. But, perhaps, one list is enough. We get it, already.

Mack's music thrums with an electronic beat of the late '80s. While it's not easy-listening, it's certainly relatable in its sketchy manner. A smatter of Broadway, a bit of Beethoven's “Ode to Joy,” those ubiquitous jingles, a lovely heart-felt number from the clerk about why he works at the Shop N Shop, the coming-out of the rent-a-cop. Nothing sticks though. You will not whistle one tune on your way home.

Eiki Isomura conducts the small ensemble as if it's Wagner, keeping everything at least bouncy and moving forward, while the creators are intent on pushing it constantly backward. Director David Gately gives this material more punch than it deserves. Designer Richard Kagey's grocery store is neatly stocked with Cheerios, Doritos, Coke, laundry detergent, and feminine hygiene products. Surprise, douches get their own little song, too.

The cast is good, with bass-baritone Matt Mattingly, as Yeltsin, very impressive indeed, as is tenor Brendan Tuohy, as the conflicted rent-a-cop, and baritone Thomas Gunther, as Everyman clerk. The others are soprano Danielle Wojcik, as hyperventilating manager, bass-baritone Johhny Salvesen, as Yeltsin's security guard Vladimir, pursued by the amorous mall cop. The ensemble is ably handled by Julie Jackson, Kaarin Phelps, and Jarrett Ward. They all try their best, but it's a losing battle. The material just isn't up to their level.

The next world premieres at Opera in the Heights are the one-acts, Anthony Brandt and Neena Beber's Kassandra and Karim Al-Zand's adaptation of Ionesco's The Leader. We'll see if they might be opera's future. Musty Yeltsin is definitely in the past. Its sell-by date long over.

Performances continue on February 28 at 7:30 p.m. and March 1 at 2 p.m. at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Sung in English (complete with Texas accents for some of the characters) with surtitles. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $39-$89.