Portland State University Opera’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant was a charmer. The four performances Nov. 25 through Dec. 3 (the opera I saw) were sold out in the 84-seat Lincoln Hall Studio Theater. And for good reasons. The production hit the right chords: original, playful, an ideal length at 100 minutes in two acts, and family-friendly.
Evan Meier, emerging for his willingness to mix up musical genres without alienating listeners, composed the 2021 opera, commissioned by the American Lyric Theater. He collaborated with prolific award-winning Oregon playwright E. M. Lewis, who created the rhyme-filled lyrical libretto. PSU’s production was a premiere, though the opera has been workshopped and a concert version performed. So often, college operas are confined to stories we’ve seen many times over. But not this time.This piece was produced from scratch, with nothing to imitate or model.
Sometimes a production is shaped just right, despite the lack of “big-opera” accouterments and budgets, and this opera is one of them. Thanks to stage director Kristine McIntyre and PSU opera director Kelley Nassief, who has a mission to reach young people, for providing just enough artistic touches and stretches. One detail: At the end of acts, the lights cut out on cue, and the cast and orchestra cut off their notes in exact precision, like a storybook slamming shut. End of story, case closed!
The opera featured seven instrumentalists, who took up about a third of the stage. PSU’s Chuck Dillard tightly conducted the innovative music from a front-row audience seat. The score was refreshingly far from simplistic, boring or predictable, and it wasn’t weighed down by dissonance and disjointedness, a plague of some contemporary operas. Seven singers told the story, some more experienced than others, but all energetic. Plenty of delightful ensemble singing, especially in the second act, proved it.
The piece combines a fairy tale with a mystery, a blissful match if you’re trying to reach kids and adults in a single opera. The tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk” – in this version, the giant falls to his supposed death because someone has chopped down the enormous beanstalk to his home – is combined with the by-the-book tenacity of detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Watson. “Logic is my method; the truth is what I choose,” is Holmes’ often sung mantra. Holmes is called upon to solve the who-dunnit by young Jack Bale (sung by Tayler Edwards), who claims he is being falsely nailed as the culprit by Inspector Lestrade (baritone Xavier Davidson), who adds some Cockney flourish to his strong voice and bumbling comic portrayal.
On another level, the story is about the power of magic – how “real” are magic beans, a towering vine, singing harps, and a giant? – up against the force of logic, the intrepid Sherlock’s preference. He believes in the facts, and the facts must line up.
Tenor Andrew Walton sang and acted Holmes convincingly and crisply. Aside from possessing a compelling voice and the rhythm and timing for good acting, Walton handled the detective’s signature pipe and magnifying glass with precision and proper British stuffiness, in Holmesian fashion. Ultimately, Holmes learned to live with magic and solve the mystery. Like kids drinking up fairy tales, he opened his imagination.
Baritone Johnny Derby, who sang Papageno in the PSU spring production of The Magic Flute, fluidly and humorously performed the role of Holmes’ affable and sometimes clumsy sidekick, Watson. The two young men, both seniors, carried the production vocally, but the rest of the cast added verve, and kept the story moving. Supertitles would have been helpful as they are in all operas, English-spoken ones included. The story had a lot of twists and turns. But supertitles are an investment. (I wish small companies would or could invest in them!)
The most fun detail, especially for opera-devotees, was the role of the magic harp that spews out clues about the case (harpist Denise Fujikawa has a larger than usual part) from such classic operas as Tosca and Rusalka, Elisir d’Amore, Sleeping Beauty, The Magic Flute and Das Rheingold. An opera buff, Holmes returns to his office and runs into Jack after seeing a “Londontown” show. He was still wearing formal tails, endearingly too large for him, and of course, he was the only one who could figure out the harp’s clues, though the audience had a chance to recognize the music and participate, at least silently.
Megan Wilkerson created clever video projections that wrapped around the walls. Why bother with three-dimensional scenery that crowds the stage these days? I’ve seen her imaginative work in recent operas, including in this summer’s OrpheusPDX production Dark Sisters, and I remain impressed with her visual and design skills.
But to finish. The giant, Blunderbore, performed by dramatic baritone Curtis Sutphin, spent a good amount of time in the second act lying motionless on the ground, his gargantuan shoes pointing like projectiles to the sky. He had presumably fallen dead, until he magically awakened. First he snored, then he came fully to life as a nice big guy rather than as a nasty scary giant, another fairy tale-ish thing. He and his wife Meriiee (dramatic soprano Angela Tinio, whose voice projects powerfully) ask lonely and impoverished Jack Bale and his grandmother (mezzo Sequoia Robinette) to live with them. So forgiveness was in the air. As was compromise: Magic and logic can work together to solve mysteries.
This opera has lots of lessons, as well as artistic details and creative efforts that land the production among the most entertaining that PSU has done in recent years.