The Thirteenth Child

By Scott MacClelland

JUST RELEASED ON CD, The Thirteenth Child offers a fabulous recording of a new opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders. And it comes with a fascinating backstory. Better still, it will make its world stage premiere at Santa Fe Opera this month in a run that begins July 27. American opera fans will be able to tell their grandchildren, “I was there.” I say grandchildren because The Thirteenth Child is based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale, The Twelve Brothers. But, as everybody knows, Grimm fairytales are all too often grim, even scary, and this opera, with a brilliant score by Ruders is no exception.

Poul Ruders’ symphonic music has long been a mainstay of Bridge Records and the composer a close colleague of Becky and David Starobin who fashioned the libretto. In a phone chat last week, Becky told me that Ruders had composed four operas but not one based on a fairytale. “He liked the idea,” she said, but he hedged that it would take a huge effort to see it through. The recording was assembled from sessions, between 2016 and 2018, with the Odense Symphony Orchestra in that Danish city, the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and the New Rochelle Studios in that New York city, with a powerful cast of solo characters, plus chorus. For the recording, lasting about 80 minutes, Act I was conducted by Benjamin Shwartz, Act II by David Starobin.

You can use this new CD to follow what Ruders has done to the fairytale: paint it. Drokan (bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam) has convinced the paranoid King Hjarne (bass Matt Boehler), King of Frohagord, that his 12 sons—all still children—are plotting to overthrow him and take his crown. In his rage Hjarne determines to exterminate them, promising that if his pregnant wife Gertrude (mezzo Tamara Mumford) gives birth to a girl that only this daughter, the Thirteenth Child would inherit the throne. But, as regent to the Kingdom of Hauven, for the child Crown Prince Frederic (tenor Alasdair Kent), Drokan has other plans: to reign over both kingdoms. To lovingly protect her sons Gertrude sends them away, into magical exile. Meanwhile, red lilies symbolize each of the exiled sons. On her deathbed, Gertrude reveals to the now-grown daughter, Lyra (soprano Sarah Shafer), that she has twelve brothers, represented by 12 lilies, and that she must find them and save the family.

Lyra enters a dark forest to begin her search. (Here, Ruders creates a spooky and sinister soundscape that even includes distant cawing of crows.) Carrying shirts that Gertrude made for her sons when they were small, each bearing the symbolic red lily, Lyra finds a cottage and meets Benjamin (tenor David Portillo), the youngest of her brothers. Soon the other eleven brothers are heard singing of their toils in forest and field demanding a feast to be prepared by Benjamin, who in the meantime hides Lyra from view. But he throws up a riddle: “What is never seen, unless it is not done?” It’s a reference to his work in their cottage that goes unappreciated. When he feels he can safely reveal their sister, she hands out the shirts, much to the brothers’ amusement since they could only fit small boys. To boisterous party music, Benjamin begins to prepare a feast of reunion. Lyra decides to decorate the table by cutting the twelve lilies in the garden, unaware that they represent the souls of her twelve brothers, who, with each cut, are turned into ravens that fly off.

The ghost of Gertrude, now with a spooky added echo, advises Lyra that to restore her brothers she must wait, in total silence, until the lilies bloom again after seven years. Once that time has passed, the townsfolk proclaim Frederic will be King of Hauven with the silent Lyra as his bride. Drokan reappears muttering his plan to make Lyra his own bride, to destroy Frederic and claim both kingdoms. As the lilies bloom the brothers are restored to their human form, but Drokan, in one last instant, mortally wounds Benjamin in his raven form that, in its last moment, drives Drokan to his death in a bonfire.  

Ruders’ musical score glows with a keen sense of story-telling and the emotional responses of the characters. The moments between Gertrude and Lyra are tender and quite irresistible. The dramatic scenes boil up and over but never lose their fairy tale context and feeling. Ruders’ orchestration is equally deft with subtly exotic use of unexpected colors and timbres.  

The work was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and Odense Symfoniorkester. A new concert hall in Odense will give the opera its European premiere in 2021.