Composer/librettists O-Lan Jones and Emmett Tinley have created what they refer to as “a re-Creation Myth” in this fascinating interdisciplinary opera theater work entitled Iceland. It is profoundly musical in that it embraces both opera and contemporary musical theatre by casting 12 opera singers as The Hiddenfolk and Mythic Beasts of Icelandic folklore and two musical theater singers who would be equally comfortable sitting on the Billboard Hot 100 as the two leads that are pushed together romantically over the course of 17 hours one New Year’s Eve in Iceland.
We meet Vala as she is already sitting on her flight from New York to some hinterland in Iceland for an architectural conference; we meet Mundi as he is packing for his flight from Oslo to join friends for a New Year’s Eve gathering in Reykjavik. Vala is at a crossroads in her career, blurting out “I’m not sure I know where I belong anymore.” For Mundi, being caught in an avalanche a few years before leaves him now aimless after a career as a mountain and wilderness guide. This is a contemporary love story, but the heroine and hero embark on very separate journeys across the physical and emotional terrain of a glacier, played out amidst Iceland’s own ancient mythology, complete with a Giant, a huge Bird, a Dragon and a Bull…and those creatures just happen to sound like they belong on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.
Nancy McArthur (Vala) manages to do a lot with very little, bringing her character to life with a very expressive pop-sensibility. Sara Bareilles’ sound comes to mind, as she is a singer who has come out of pop and then was thrust into theatre in 2015 as composer and lyricist, and later the lead performer, in the Tony-nominated musical Waitress. But McArthur is undermined by weak lyrics in the mostly sung-through Iceland: unfortunately, except for very few instances of spoken word (one instance being a crucial scene in the airport) we know very little, if anything, of how Vala got to this present unhappiness in life. Being disillusioned about a career choice is a hard thing to play on stage, but McArthur manages to create depth and digs heroically into the minefield of desperate longing.
Oliver Demers (Mundi) fares better with what he is given to work with. At least in that crucial scene in the airport we come to know he had a close call with an avalanche that almost took his life. There is a hesitancy to his actions that come from having experienced a near-death catastrophe. That working out of next steps becomes integral to everything in his life. Demers also has that pop sound, but even more ardent and passionate. The era-defining sound of rock band America’s lead singer Dewey Bunnell comes to mind immediately – a voice that made you listen to and create meanings out of words that would otherwise be just lyrics. Demers’ ballads are worth recording, if in fact they are planning to go into the studio to preserve this score in its current incarnation. Mundi is guided to the fulfillment of his purpose by the Hiddenfolk. Thankfully Demers brings that heroic quality full-on after Mundi’s hangdog forlorn beginnings.
The Hiddenfolk and Landvaettir are performed by a chorus of twelve opera-caliber performers. In addition to the heavy lifting of their sumptuous and complex operatic score, they also are instrumental in the arranging for things to happen between the two leads and the dense telling of the folklore under character names such as Sun, Cloud, Sea, Forest, Night, Wind, Fire, Seed, Moon, Calm, Heaven and Beer, yes, Beer! Chorus member Perri di Christina as The Dragon shines in her solo moments, as does Carlos Pedroza as The Bull.
Angela Yam as The Bird gets a gold star for what must be a terrifying climb up her ladder as the wingspan of her bird costume prevents her from being able to hold on to any railings while she climbs up or down. Thankfully any fear doesn’t impede a very impressive soprano range. Bass-baritone Matt Mueller doubling as Forest and The Giant is a standout amongst the very many fine voices. One can expect to see his name in future Met Opera Playbills, especially in the very demanding German repertoire. He has the Icelandic mythic characters down, can the ones in Valhalla be far off?
Also assuming the role of director, co-creator O-Lan Jones has done some fine work with the cast and the sheer ambiance of the piece, but Icelandic lore is not in everyone’s education and a lot of what happens on stage is somewhat bewildering for an audience that comes unprepared. A lot of explanation is in stage directions in the printed libretto available to the critics, something the general audience is not privy to. At any given moment there is a lot of simultaneous action on the stage and the uninformed eyes don’t know what narrative to follow. Explanation could have been easily handled with projections. Subtleties in the playfulness of the different Hiddenfolk worked well to differentiate one character from another, but the average audience person should be prepared to be confused.
Kudos to Matthew Imhoff’s scenic and lighting design in creating a very otherworldly setting. Mela London’s projection content design was spot on and complemented Imhoff’s design so well, particularly in recreating the effect of the exquisite Northern Lights. Matsy Stinson’s costumes for the Hiddenfolk and Landvaettir were imaginative and quite striking while the travel-wear for the two leads was very faithful to their characters and personalities.
Conductor Robert Kahn’s music direction was a little muddy at times where instrumentation as well as voices were buried by the sheer volume of what was played. Delicacy from flute and harp solo lines were thankfully not impacted by those moments. The true wonder of having two different styles, the operatic and choral blending with a pop/folk feel, proves how well they can co-exist in a music-theatre work when they are in fact supporting the human and the hidden characters of two different genres.
Short of traveling to the country itself, our imaginations were gifted with geysers that force boiling water into the icy air and volcanoes that spit fire to create the dramatic Icelandic landscape rich in geological treasures ripe for exploring. Hot springs, fjords, lava fields and black-sand beaches appeared only inches away. For the most part, all we missed was the seven-hour flight and security check-in.
Iceland (through April 2, 2023)
La MaMa presents in association with Overtone Industries
Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ovationtix.com
Running time: 90 minutes including one minute intermission