in: Reviews

August 17, 2012

A Bold Opera Experiment

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In her impromptu introduction to the new opera Pearl before the August 13th performance at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, music director Sara Jobin won a round of applause in explaining how it all came about: that Jobin, as a conductor, was “tired of operas where the woman cries ‘Help me! Help me!’ – and then dies.”

By some reports, opera audiences are growing. And at the same time, the prevalence of simultaneous translations (subtitles or supertitles), and the vividness of medium on the cinema stage are making the details of their stories more vivid and powerful – with the result that the both the inherent misogyny and the violence against women is becoming harder to ignore.  “Does this woman really have no choices?” I asked myself the last time I saw Madama Butterfly; I don’t remember being so troubled by it previously.

This aspect of the genre is often problematic in academia, but does not seem to be an issue in the world of opera production.  That’s why Sara Jobin and the creative team of Pearl are brave in the steps they are taking to launch this new work. And it seems the time is ripe, to judge from the audience enthusiasm to just the idea of an opera with strong female leads who successfully cope with the problems that beset them. The capacity crowd (ca. 400) at the Tina Packer Playhouse seemed enthusiastic and satisfied by the operatic product of this workshop performance, as was I.

Pearl is an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Jobin invited author/sociologist Carol Gilligan to create the libretto — Gilligan had already adapted Hawthorne’s novel for the stage, and in reworking it for an opera, Gilligan decided to work with her son, Jonathan Gilligan, a poet as well as a scientist. Amy Scurria, a composer based in North Carolina, was chosen to write the music. As a Grammy-nominated, internationally known opera conductor, Jobin is the instigator of the project; she envisioned it as part of a larger plan, Different Voice Opera Project, which is moving forward with ideas for several works that overturn the operatic paradigm of the female victim.

With the cast, six remarkable solo singers and a chorus of 25 volunteering their services, in a reading of a work whose creation is in progress, it is not my role to criticize the performance, but rather to let readers know about this experiment, and to report on its successful use of a powerful, musically poetic language in telling an iconic American story.

The libretto provides central scenes from the novel, but of course much of the story must be telescoped and elided, and dialogue provided that is apt for singing (the thee’s and thou’s of Hawthorne’s book are gone).

Amy Scurria’s musical language is accessible (i.e. tonal) but richly varied. The opening motive, a simple but poignant progression of four chords, repeated as a haunting ostinato. This motive introduced Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, as an adult looking back on the events of her childhood. This framing device, of Pearl recalling and reliving these events, serves beautifully both as a unifying device and also a means of offering reflection on the characters of the story – including the child Pearl. For adult Pearl, this process serves as a kind of therapy, to put together these pieces of her past and understand them. This musical element and many others were also recalled later, in subtly transformed versions, to illuminate this process of memory and understanding. Adult Pearl was sung with great emotional resonance by Marnie Breckenridge.

There were many outstanding poetic passages, and the musical language and the text melded beautifully together: the musical lines evoked the poetic resonance, and vice-versa, effectively to evoke the drama and emotion of Hawthorne’s novel. Scurria has a remarkable melodic sense; at one point she borrows from a Wampanoag love song for Dimmesdale to sing to Prynne, an effective reference to a Native American presence in Hawthorne’s book. Moments of remarkable tenderness are expressed between Dimmesdale and Prynne. The duet “If God is love, can love be sin” was gripping and memorable, as was the limpid moment when he sings “Hester, take down your hair.”  Scurria’s lyrical writing and tenor John Bellemer’s sensitive singing as Dimmesdale brought out the wonderful musicality of the name “Hester Prynne” — so lovingly phrased, evoking such tenderness in the name, that I wondered if this is a classic love song in the making, like Bernstein’s “Maria.”

As Governor Bellingham, John Demler was suitably sinister in conveying the hypocrisy of the Puritan church; while John Cheek as Reverend Wilson had a more nuanced role as an advisor, even a concerned father figure for Dimmesdale as well as a patriarch for the community. Roger Chillingsworth’s malevolent manipulations of Dimmesdale’s feelings of guilt could have been conveyed in more detail although they were effectively sung by Jack Brown.

Prynne, Dimmesdale, Bellingham, and Wilson had a quartet of Verdian magnitude, with the church fathers urging Prynne to confess the father of her child, Prynne resisting and Dimmesdale, gently compassionate while urging tolerance. Thus a range of conflicting emotions was expressed by the overlapping musical lines. There are several impressive crowd scenes: for instance at one point the congregation sings an “Our Father” that suggests Puritan rigidity through taut modern counterpoint.

Scurria’s musical vocabulary is mostly diatonic, sometimes using energized textures with straightforward harmonies (the Philip Glass influence that Jobin mentioned in the talkback after the performance). However, to convey a sense of tension or conflict — the shipwreck, the encounters with the sinister Roger Chillingsworth, the machinations of the church fathers to remove Pearl from Hester Prynne’s care, etc. — Scurria draws on a contrasting vocabulary. This is the darker imagery of chromaticism, fleeting interjections, jangling dissonance, tritones, and other harsh sonorities reminiscent (for instance) of the darkness of Mussorsky’s Baba Yaga. This is not novel, but it certainly is effective in creating energized and exciting moods and making palpable the changes of emotion.

Maureen O’Flynn sang Hester Prynne, the most demanding vocal role, with great passion and strength. She has many powerful duets with Dimmesdale, and also with both Pearls. In the “A” Aria (a version of this aria can be heard on YouTube here) child Pearl has a sprightly ditty on the letter “A”, while at the same time Pyrnne has a muscular, angular melody as she reflects on the wisdom and independence of spirit she has gained (“The A that branded me, set me free”).

The young Pearl was performed by the remarkable child, Olivia Marchione, in a vocal and dramatic part that involved her throughout the two-hour opera. This challenging role, although written to be suitable for her young voice, drew on both her acting and singing capabilities, and Marchione was impressive in both.

In the discussion after the performance, it was gratifying to hear the singers talk about the excitement of being involved in the process of rehearsing a work-in-progress and being able (through email) to raise issues of text, register, and timbre nearly instantaneously with the composer and librettists.

While the work has a carefully paced momentum, I was a little confused about the ending: does Dimmesdale die, as in the book? Surely that plot element can’t be changed in drawing on such a well-known novel, but nevertheless, I was unclear about it. Well, it is a work in progress.

And progress it will! There are already plans in the making for another performance next year.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.

4 Comments

  1. Thrilled to read of the success of this worthy experiment. Must we wait until next year for another performance?

    Comment by Martha Smith — August 17, 2012 at 1:09 pm

  2. Hi Liane, Your writing is as lyrical as the music and performance you describe. What a marvelous idea to invite Carol Gilligan to provide us with “a different voice,” just as she did in her book about the moral reasoning of men and women. Although the research itself has been challenged, Gilligan’s book achieved iconic status for a while, just like Hawthorne’s book. There are so many layers of meaning in this opera. All the best, Shula

    Comment by Shulamit Reinharz — August 18, 2012 at 8:01 am

  3. Your engaging review has left me with the sense that I had attended the opera in person. I have an understanding of the writers’ motivations, the style of music, the setting and the substantive story. I wish “Pearl” continuing growing success!

    Comment by Deon Nielsen Price — August 18, 2012 at 11:00 am

  4. “… Jobin, as a conductor, was “tired of operas where the woman cries ‘Help me! Help me!’ – and then dies.”

    How does Hester Prynne break the mold of woman as victim?

    Is it reasonable to imply that Opera is without strong ladies even though some die in the last act?

    Consider: Susannah in Marriage of Figaro; Donna Anna in Don Giovanni; Queen of the Night in Magic Flute; Tosca; Leonora in Fidelio; Lysia in Lysistrata; Carmen; Thais; Lady Macbeth; Cleopatra in Julius Caesar; Elektra; Salome; Lulu, The Marschallin- very strong ladies, all

    Comment by de novo2 — August 18, 2012 at 11:34 am

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