One act opera depicting the first meeting of Churchill and Stalin plays in San Francisco.
By Joshua Kosman
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, 26 August 2012—In August of 1942, amid one of the darkest stretches of World War II, Winston Churchill flew to Moscow to meet with Josef Stalin for the first time. It was an attempt to smooth over a diplomatic relationship that had gone sour and to bring Soviet Russia into a closer alliance with the Western powers.
That summit – a surprising turning point in the military struggle against the Third Reich – forms the basis of “Daughter of the Red Tzar,” an engagingly brisk and overstuffed one-act opera that had its world premiere over the weekend at Thick House Theater in Potrero Hill.
Within 80 minutes of music, composer and librettist Lisa Scola-Prosek tackles not only the difficult personal and political detente between these two outsized figures – including the turnaround that seems to have occurred during a late-night bout of feasting and drinking – but also the plight of Stalin’s teenage daughter, Svetlana, and the domestic reign of terror that entraps her Jewish intellectual lover.
“Daughter of the Red Tzar” tears through these matters in a series of taut little scenes, each one getting at something of its subject matter before rushing forward. The result plays like a sort of bonsai version of John Adams’ “Nixon in China” (to which it practically begs comparison). It’s compelling and often illuminating in its details, yet the sense of a disparity in scale between the piece and its subject matter never quite goes away.
Still, Scola-Prosek’s score is an ingratiating creation, marked by shapely vocal set pieces and an alluring melodic vein that probes the drama. Svetlana’s teenage heartache is skillfully sketched in a couple of lyrical numbers, and even the growing personal bond between Stalin and Churchill finds expression in their duet. If the harmonies lean a little too cozily on moody minor chords, the vocal textures more than compensate.
Saturday’s performance was as compact an undertaking as the work itself, with conductor Martha Stoddard leading a six-member instrumental ensemble, and director Melissa Weaver making dexterous use of a tiny stage area. In one of the evening’s most ingenious strokes, Churchill flies into Russia in a plane evoked by three singing choristers.
Churchill was embodied by tenor John Duykers, in a bravura performance that brought out his characteristic intelligence and gruffness. From the ferocity of the statesmen’s initial showdown to the tenderness of his dawning disappointment, Duykers brought a wealth of tonal clarity and dramatic vividness to the part.
The rest of the cast was just as fine, including bass-baritone Scott Graff in a formidable performance as Stalin, and mezzo-soprano Crystal Philippi as a heartbreakingly vulnerable Svetlana. Phillip Skinner brought a bluff charisma to the role of Alexei, Svetlana’s doomed lover.
Daughter of the Red Tzar has completed its run at the Thick House Theater, but will be playing at other venues in the Bay Area. Check local listings for more informaiton.
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. He can be reached at [email protected]
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