The late singer/song writer Steve Goodman wrote a cute song, “If My Life Was on Video Tape.” The tape could be rewound and mistakes corrected. In composer Sven-David Sondstrom and librettist Claes Fellbom’s cruel-comic opera “Jeppe” much of life is on video tape, there is both reality and unreality TV but there are no retakes.
The IU Opera Theatre has really pulled out the technical stops for this production. C. Dvaid Higgins’ stage set is surrounded by walls of television monitors and the backdrop is a huge screen. The set transforms itself into a sports bar and even an open field. “Jeppe” opens with an elaborate costume ball with everyone dressed in Civil War costumes. As the guests move through both natural dance choreography and strangely static groupings, two handheld cameras follow the action. There are group shots, long shots, medium shots and extreme closeups all displayed on the individual monitors and on the giant screen. The action is both flowing and at times jerky, at times frozen.
“Jeppe” is based on an old tale of a lowly peasant put in a position of power and then allowed various comic mishaps. The callous master media mogul plotter, Harry, sung by Jonathan Stinson assisted bamboozles the drunken poet Jeppe, sung by Taylor Hightower, into believing that he’s presiding over a 1920s costume gala at his estate and then cruelly undeceives him. Harry is ably assisted by the videographers Josh, Joshua Whitener, and Erik, Nathan Baer.
Poor Jeppe is involved with a quartet of women. There’s his slatternly bus driver wife, Dolly, sung by Lindsey Falduto. Then Teresa S. Herold as the comically dizzy La Diva who believes that Jeppe is writing a role for her. The third is the former hippie earth mother, Luna, sung by Margaret Nilsson. And finally his at first reluctant and then willing muse, Beatrice, sung by Maija Lisa Currie. In the opera, characters are fleshed out more than in the tale and there’s some added meanness and some additional sympathetic humanity.
“Jeppe” has an interesting balance. The first act has more fascinating gimmicks the second act has fewer gimmicks, but more plot action. The IU production is conducted with energy and attention to the colorful details by David Effron. The very inventive stage direction by the librettist Claes Fellbom. It’s currently running about two and a half hours with a fifteen minute intermission. While I wouldn’t want to miss any of the music the sessions in the sports bar seem a little repetitive and with some tightening up there and elsewhere it could be even more enjoyable
You might expect with all the theatrical emphasis on techno elements that “Jeppe” would be musically jagged, perhaps even ugly. There are dramatically tense moments in the score, but Sven-David Sandstrom’s music is tonal, lush, and colorfully orchestrated. He has a real feeling for music that exploits normal speech patterns and lovely melodies that flatter the voices. Saturday night’s cast all sang well and there were passages of captivating beauty. The chorus, whether in Civil War garb, twenties costumes or contemporary clothes all had plenty to sing and do and did it all with style..
“Jeppe” by Sven-David Sandstrom plays this Friday and Saturday in the Musical Arts Center at eight.