The Salem witch trials of 1692 have had a hold on the American imagination for centuries. In writing his play, The Crucible, Arthur Miller found them to be excellent dramatic fodder to hold McCarthyism up to scrutiny. Composer Robert Ward and librettist Bernard Stambler in turn used Miller’s play as the basis for their fine opera, which ran at Church of the Covenant in Boston through this performance on November 22. Boston Opera Collaborative mounted a strong production, its sizable ensemble cast showing both strong musicianship and solid acting chops. It was consistently apparent that Stage Director Roxanna Myhrum and Music Director Adam Kerry Boyles are very skilled at their jobs, but this company would be heard to still better advantage in a more conventional venue. In the rather cavernous acoustic of Boston‘s Church of the Covenant, the turn of a singer’s head could suddenly render the text incomprehensible; at moments of high dramatic tension this became frustrating. The Collaborative apparently had noted this and were thoughtful enough to provide projected surtitles behind the cast, but reading them took our eyes away from character’s faces and the dramatic action. And of course it chafes to have to read surtitles at all when the opera is in English.
The conflict of cool, impartial justice and religious fanaticism is set up early on in Act I. Reverend Parris’s daughter Betty lies inert at home, and he prays to God to help her, the town’s doctors being helpless. The reverend, fully characterized by tenor James Onstad, is plainly not a religious fanatic at the outset. However, we learn that there are other girls in Salem with conditions akin to Betty’s, and the debate unfolds: whether they are due to somatic causes or a sinister supernatural presence. Thomas and Ann Putnam have already lost seven children, and their sole surviving daughter is now sick. Thomas vehemently spearheads the faction charging witchcraft. Joel Buford left no doubt of the character’s ability to sway minds; quite soon he had Rev. Parris believing in the power of witches. Giles Corey, passionately sung by Adrian Jones, charges that the campaign to accuse even upright Salem women of dealings with the Devil is Putnam’s scheme to seize the land of those executed for witchcraft. As the argument becomes more heated, Rebecca Nurse attempts to calm the waters, saying “gentle love is the cure,” but to no avail. Christina Calamaio lent Rebecca’s character admirable purity of heart and voice in the midst of turmoil. The orchestra and chorus colorfully illustrated the dispute with an irregular, jazzy rhythm (2+2+2+3: think of Dave Brubaker’s Blue Rondo à la Turk), an interesting choice by Mr. Ward for a scene in colonial Salem but undeniably memorable.
In Act II the principal players in the drama emerge. Abby Williams, niece of Rev. Parris and former servant to John and Elizabeth Proctor, claims to have had a spiritual awakening and become an agent of God. In fact, she is leading the witch-hunt which is dramatically accelerating as more and more townspeople are caught in its emotional undertow. John Proctor is one of the dwindling number of skeptics but is reluctant to oppose Abby; he has previously committed adultery with her and knows that opposing her would inevitably lead to his exposure. But when Abby accuses Elizabeth, he decides he must denounce Abby as a fraud even though it will sacrifice his reputation.
The final principal character, Judge Danforth, who will oversee the trials, appears in Act III. His presumed experience and his having traveled from Boston lend him a certain gravitas. In his interrogations, he is soon taking as gospel everything declared by Abby. John speaks to him, confessing that he has “known” Abby (in all senses) and calling her a fraud. Judge Danforth then summons Elizabeth and asks her if John has been a faithful husband. Following her natural instinct to protect her spouse, she avows his innocence and thus inadvertently destroys his credibility. He is hauled off to jail.
By the final Act IV, the judge’s policy to wrap up the trials quickly has become “confess or be executed.” Whether confessions are sincere is immaterial. In the interest of their young children, Elizabeth persuades John to make a false confession that his life may be spared. Surprisingly, John does this. Rev. Parris reappears to announce that Abby has robbed him and run away. Even this news does not deter Judge Danforth, however, and he demands further that John sign an official confession. John realizes he cannot teach his sons to be upright men if he signs a false confession and proudly heads to the gallows in the wrenching dénouement. Elizabeth is grief-stricken but understands and accepts her husband’s decision.
The orchestra, led by Adam Kerry Boyles, played with precision and cohesion, supporting and enhancing the singers’ performances. The dramatic personae were convincingly realized, in particular the characters who made transitions: Rev. Parris, who moved from skeptic to fervent believer; Rev. Hale (Matthew Wight) who made the reverse transition, ultimately begging Judge Danforth in vain to stay the executions; John Proctor (Sepp Hammer) who had to fight two epic battles in his mind — whether to sacrifice his good name to defend his wife and whether to confess to a crime he didn’t commit; Elizabeth Proctor (Julia Teitel) who struggled with the decision to try to persuade her husband to make the false confession, tainting his family name but allowing him to live and be a father to his children; and perhaps Judge Danforth (Sean Malkus), whose character may not have changed but our perception of him did.
The musical high points included Joel Buford’s stirring if misguided call to arms as Thomas Putnam. All the scenes of John and Elizabeth Proctor together were moving: Mr. Hammer and Ms. Teitel worked beautifully and persuasively together. Their final duet, even with tragedy approaching, is a radiant expression of love and profound respect for each other. As the slave conjurer Tituba, Jodie-Marie Fernandes delivered the moving jailhouse lament of one who longs to be free in the smaller and larger senses. Sean Malkus gave a strong dramatic and musical profile to Judge Danforth and with skill gradually revealed the demagogue and fanatic cloaked under a jurist’s robe. It was not a role I would have expected a composer to cast a tenor in according to operatic convention, but Mr. Malkus fully convinced me. And Holly Cameron made a marvelous femme fatale as Abby, her considerable vocal resources carrying her without strain over the greatest dramatic climaxes of the opera.
Boston has long been said to have a love-hate relationship with opera, but I am hopeful this stereotype will swiftly disappear with the committed assistance of a fine company such as Boston Opera Collaborative.