Look out! There’s trouble again at the Overlook Hotel in the scenic mountains of Colorado. Jack Torrance, the caretaker, is back on the sauce, he’s turned psychotic, and he’s smashing the bedroom door with a croquet mallet, screaming at his wife and kid that he’s going to kill them.
We know these people — Jack, his wife, Wendy, and their small son, Danny. We met them in “The Shining,” the 1977 novel that made Stephen King famous, and with the release three years later of Stanley Kubrick’s film version starring Jack Nicholson, we renewed our acquaintance. And now the Torrances are back for a third visit, and this time they’re singing.
The much-awaited opera version of “The Shining,” the latest installment in Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative, received its premiere at the Ordway Music Theater Saturday night. If the evening’s chief question was, can a legitimate, engrossing opera be fashioned from an unlikely source — a popular horror-thriller tale — the answer offered in this eye-filling multimedia production with its Romantic score by Paul Moravec and deft libretto by Mark Campbell, along with a first-rate cast, was a resounding yes.
Wisely, the creators of the opera, a group that includes the director, Eric Simonson, who hatched the idea of an opera on “The Shining” back in 2010, drew on the novel rather than the movie for source material. The movie’s aim, with its scenery-chewing performance by Nicholson, was to scare the bejabbers out of everybody. (King, we’re told, didn’t like the movie.)
The novel tells a deeper, more resonant story. Jack, a recovering alcoholic, was an abused child, as was his own father, Mark, who appears onstage as a ghost — or, if one chooses, as a figment of Jack’s fevered imagination. Mark goads Jack to kill Danny, in an effort to perpetuate the cycle of male-dominated violence that has poisoned the family for generations.
Even though Jack has gone over to the dark side, he realizes he still has the power of choice. In Campbell’s shrewd libretto, Jack ponders in a monologue at the start of Act Two whether to blow up the hotel, thereby saving his family but sacrificing himself.
In the opera’s most moving moment, underscored by a haunting passage in the orchestra, Danny, who is psychic — he has “the shining” — rebukes Jack: “You are not my father,” meaning that Jack has changed into someone unrecognizable. Brokenhearted, Jack falls to the floor in despair. Then, in what is the climax of the opera, Jack breaks his father’s cane — the cane, the symbol of patriarchy, that his father had beaten his mother with many years earlier. Then he blows up the hotel.
Whereas Kubrick’s movie interpolated jagged, edgy concert music by Ligeti, Penderecki and other European modernists for its background music, Moravec’s score for the opera incorporates propulsive, percussion-driven sounds for what could be called the “mad scenes” of Act Two, along with appropriately eerie moments as tension-builders, but most of the music is tonal and Romantic and yet doesn’t sound old-fashioned — the soaring, exultant lyricism, for instance, in the opening scene as Jack and the family anticipate — almost too eagerly — their “new life,” or at the very end, the beautifully written coda scene, where Dick Hallorann, the cook, consoles Danny and Wendy as the strings play delicate chamber music.
The orchestral interludes in the first act, Wendy’s fervent aria (“I never stopped loving you”) and ensuing lullaby, the 1940s swing-band number with its gauzy sonority — all were effective touches in Moravec’s generous, abundant score, all of which sounded wonderful under the guidance of conductor Michael Christie.
A few things didn’t work. The brief offstage choral parts meant to synchronize with some of Danny’s speeches were unclear and cluttered. And in terms of design, the shadows projected on the walls of figures from the hotel’s past looked funny rather than scary — and, actually, weren’t all that funny, either.
Even so, the production Simonson and his team put together can only be called brilliant, whether it was the sliding panels, the disintegrating hotel or the 3-D projections of the Colorado mountains. Erhard Rom was the set designer, Karin Kopischke the costumer and Robert Wierzel the lighting designer. 59 Productions created the inventive projections.
As for the cast, how could it have been better? Kelly Kaduce, with her bright lyric soprano, was a sexy, loving, sometimes desperate Wendy, a much stronger, more resilient character here than in the movie. Brian Mulligan was an unforgettable Jack, alternately pathetic and terrifying and richly sung. As Hallorann, Arthur Woodley brought warm tone to the lovely final aria. David Walton was a suavely menacing Grady and Mark Walters a vividly louche Mark Torrance. Alejandro Vega, a fifth-grader who goes to school in Hopkins, was sensational as Danny. This is a kid who knows how to shine.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.