Transforming Boston University’s Booth Theater from a workshop-worthy black box to a fully fitted-out, semi-precious jewel box, a sold-out, four-performance run of Mark Adamo’s evergreen (the second most-mounted American opera after Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors) Little Women gave two large casts and copious collaborators plenty of scope to demonstrate the thriving good health of the BU School of Music Opera Institute and School of Theater.
As I wrote in a previous review, Adamo’s first opera became something of an instant hit when Houston Grand Opera premiered it in a studio production. Since then it has been on the boards of 30 major opera houses as well as countless college and community productions. The composer’s manner of combining throbbing and angular 12-tone passages to advance action with lyrically arching tonal arias stands as his signal method. Adamo also engaged in some charming sonic onomatopoeia to suggest of braying colts, crying babies, and morse code.
Drawn from the novel, as well as Transcendentalist favorites such as Goethe and Bunyan, his effective libretto in couplets appeals to critics and audiences alike. John Rockwell’s NY Times review of the 2003 NY City Opera told us that it’s okay for sophisticates to be moved. “Because Adamo brings the 19th century to us without coyness or pandering, his work possesses an authenticity that other improvements of the American primitive genre do not.” One could understand the style as Sondheim with touches of Copland barnyard scenes and Bernard Herrmann slashing.
Relationships change as time moves forward and backward…That is the mantra of Adamo’s timeless libretto. The composer wrote of his work:
“Jo’s journey called to mind the Buddhist suggestion that a lesson unlearned will present itself over and over again until at last the pilgrim makes progress and grasps the point. It suggested to me a score in which one could clearly hear Jo’s music of resistance tangling with and finally yielding to an unstoppable music of change. In fact, I wanted two scores: a character music sounding these protagonists’ emotional journeys, and a narrative music as distinct as I could make it from the thematic foreground.”
“So, Jo’s resistance theme and Meg’s and Laurie’s change theme, among others, are written in a free lyric language of triad and key. But those moments driven by language and story, rather than music and psychology, take a kind of dodecaphonic recitativo secco, designed to distinguish the flavor of the non-thematic dialogue. It’s Jo’s Act One scena, “Perfect As We Are,” which portrays her divided feelings by disrupting her long-lined F-major cantilena with careening dodecaphonic comedy, which best exemplifies what I dreamed for this opera: a music in which even the most unlike materials could fuse into a single music if the ear is sensitive and the design is sound.”
Stage Director Eve Summers placed her 15 colorfully costumed characters all over the thrust stage and rear balcony. Bridges over the orchestra pit expanded the action onto an apron inches away from the front row of seats, permitting this writer close examinations of costumes and props. Such was Summer’s zeal for verisimilitude that she placed facsimiles of Louisa May Alcott letters in Jo’s hands. A hinged partition rolled back and forth to bring action into a drawing room or out of doors. A third stairway placed midstage facilitated entrances and exits, keeping the characters moving except during time-stopping arias. And Summer took pains to stage background tableaux of actions (such as the dying Meg) which the audience witnessed before all the characters did. She treated Adamo’s commenting chorus of the four transcended sisters almost as videos, thanks to Slick Jorgensen’s textured lighting. Michael O’Herron’s highly detailed outfits deserve a full review. The designs could be at home in the most expensive productions, and they were built by the drapers and stitchers in the BU production crew.
On Saturday night Jo, in the person of Alexis Peart, dominated all—vocally and theatrically. Her characterization, at least as vivid and memorable as Katherine Hepburn’s in the Cukor movie, burned into our imagination. We couldn’t take our eyes off her extremely plastic face which mirrored an arrogant but ambivalent soul. Her plush yet robust voice projected seamlessly across registers. Convention may have swirled around her, but it never trapped her until the reader-demanded marriage from part two of the novel. Joan Acocella wrote in the New Yorker:
“On one page, Marmee, the font of all wisdom, tells Meg and Jo that to be loved by a good man is the best thing that can happen to a woman, but a few sentences later, Marmee says that it is better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives. Which did Alcott believe? …. In an 1883 interview, Alcott said, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body . . . because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man.” Hmm. And so we are not surprised that she herself did not marry, but then why did she have to force a husband on her most Louisa-like character, and one who had expressed similar sentiments? (“I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy,” Jo says, in the novel’s first scene.) In recent “Little Women” scholarship, all this bewilderment was compounded by postmodern critics’ emphasis on ambivalence, on conflict, on the dark truths lurking in what had once seemed clean, honest books.”
It would appear appropriate then for Summer to take up the composer’s option of having Jo’s teacher-then-paramour Friedrich sung by a contralto, but according to Managing Director Oshin Gregorian, the choice was made on the basis of the availability of several fine mezzos for the role rather any political considerations.
Unfortunately, in Saturday night’s casting, the love match felt implausible. Alena Feldman impersonated the older man (39) with some perhaps appropriate awkwardness. Placed upstage right for her big scene, only in climactic high notes did she carry above the orchestra. She and Jo made an odd couple, with Jo standing two-heads taller than her suitor. Feldman did bring a devotee’s immersion to Adamo’s setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land,” a worthy addition to settings by Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann.
In the prologue, Andrew Beardon Brown’s agreeable tenor as Laurie produced rather callow inorganic chemistry with the understandably resistant Jo. She would not allow that love to speak its name. With his later intended Amy, Laurie’s avowals become credibly ardent as the plot demanded. Madeleine Lew got Amy’s pout down and showed the maturing of the character well, singing the letter scene with especial poignance; her a pinpoint focus of tone and a mastery of Adamo’s style, both in dodecaphonic parlando and coloratura arias, never failed to charm.
Annabrett Ruggiero made a smashing entrance as Aunt Cecelia—her stage demeanor and old-fashioned contralto struck us as pitch perfect. Addison Pattillo gave Beth’s La Boheme death scene plenty of pathos replete with with dropped bloody handkerchief (Ask a doctor if scarlet fever produces this symptom). Even though placed far upstage for most of her scenes, she projected sumptuously over the orchestra in the important moments.
Conductor William Lumpkin fully illuminated what Adamo called a “riot of inflection and color which cleverly combines a crisply rhythmic and angular use of recitative along with lyrical and emotionally impactful moments, all supported by a brilliant and colorful orchestration.” The orchestra 7,6,6,4,2 strings plus winds, brass, piano, harp, and percussion indefatigably put the challenging score across, though sometimes covering the singers’ quieter passages. We saw their lips move but did not always hear what must have been heartfelt pianissimos and sotto voces.
With an evenness of talent and effective ensemble interactions, Sunday’s cast gave the show a lighter mien, with much more laughter than we had heard the night before. In the prologue, warm, earnest, and confident tenor Andrew Marcus Huber (Laurie) assured his Jo, the suitably 19th-century-looking mezzo Sarah Zieba, that “She [sister Meg] is loved.” Zieba, made a great fit as the most strong-willed of four loving sisters. Her petulance seemed something of an idee fixe, but her vocalisms easily rode the prancing, galloping, slashing, and reverent score. The subsequent sheets-on-strings melodrama within the play revealed a salubrious sibling sorority of four, adding Meg: Olivia Schurke, Beth: Sarah Rogers and Amy: Erin Shea Hogan plus boy-toy Laurie. The scene conveyed the Edenic nostalgia of the novel…darker themes, of course, would follow.
Courtney Towns as Marmee consoled all with rounded and plush tones, epitomizing the motherly embrace. Laurie (Huber) assured us in wonderfully supported high floaters of the perfection of the moment. Jo (Zieba) then embarked on her Carouselesque soliloquy, looking like the girl next door, but sounding like a knowing soul we’d like to meet.
Bearded baritone Yunus Akbas as John made love with Meg (Shurke) in the most chaste, but intense 19th-century meaning of the term, after inartfully comparing winning her love to training a colt. Schurke’s lovely mezzo interpreted the open-hearted 19-year-old character with believable affection. Her encounter with the theatrical malevolence of the man-hating aunt Cecelia (Carli Mazich-Addice) led to the flower-strewn wedding scene, introduced by Adamo’s piccolo and horn duet, which niftily impersonated the two characters. Towns as Marmee along with Mr. March (Anthony Pilcher) gave a sunny duet benediction much to the chagrin of a frowning, jealous Jo.
Laurie, “a man now,” tried once more with Jo, who sang, “We are too much the same.” Might we not change?”, Laurie pleads with stunning high tessitura. Jo stubbornly turns up her nose at the “disgusting” idea of matrimony. Amy (Erin Shea Hogan) subsequently reports in a sung letter on the joys of matrimony with Laurie. Her bright ping and joyful coloratura pleased all…except Jo.
In the second act Beth sickened and died operatically with great pathos and handsome tones. Sarah Rogers gave full-voiced, long-lined soprano meatiness to the scene. She had never planned beyond the moment.
The romance between Jo and the “at-death’s-door” 39-year-old German teacher Friedrich Bhaer (Laura Beth Couch) did not strain credulity. Couch looked and sounded Byronic in the trouser role and dispatched “Kennst du das Land” with deep pathos, great German, and radiant affection for the tortured and ambivalent Jo.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
More of Oshin Gregorian’s picture follow below.
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