The Magic Mirror, an opera with 14 singers and a live orchestra of seven (plus a conductor!), has a sound of a magnitude unlike any other FringeNYC show. Yet while an auditory powerhouse, the theatrical elements (staging, acting, etc.) do not live up to the music.
Based on Pushkin’s retelling of Snow White, the story is familiar, yet has a distinctly Russian folk tale flair: The Princess is the daughter of a Tsar, the Sun, Moon and Wind are personified, being fair of complexion is the most desirable form of beauty and the Princess is sheltered by seven knights instead of dwarves. Unequivocally darker in tone than the Disney version, the Evil Queen dominates the story with her manic desire to be the fairest in the land.
The score, with music and libretto (in Russian) by Polina Nazaykinskaya and musically directed by Lidiya Yankovskaya, is full in sound, dramatic and wrought with emotion. Some of my favorite moments were when one character was onstage and the rest of the ensemble would sing from offstage, behind the audience, embracing us in sound.
Red-haired and elegant in a black evening gown, Jennifer Weiman captures the beautiful malevolence of the Evil Queen. Erin Anderson is delicate and lovely as the Princess, her clear soprano voice rising effortlessly in volume and pitch. As a theatre critic, I lack sufficient operatic vocabulary, but suffice it to say that everyone in the cast sounds GREAT. Roland Mills, a member of the ensemble and one of the seven knights, is a particular stand out, bringing a playfulness and presence to everything he does.
Yet the emotion, inherent in the vocals, does not translate into the performers’ physicality. Highly charged moments are undercut by Stage Director Erin Huelskamp’s reliance on broad, cliché gestures and in the few moments when the cast is called upon to do a simple dance, you feel their discomfort and in fact see various members of the ensemble glancing at each others’ feet. Opera is typically done in a large space with an orchestra dividing the audience from the performers, but the immediate proximity of this venue calls for a subtlety and genuineness presently missing from the production.
The festival blurb for The Magic Mirror says this new opera “presents a contemporary twist on this timeless tale.” At present, what makes it contemporary is unclear. I hope that Nazaykinskaya, born in 1987 and clearly a very talented composer, and her team continue to develop this ambitious project – the score is there, now it just needs that true love’s kiss to awaken it to its true potential.