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Little Women, Summer Opera Theater

Composer Mark Adamo (b. 1962)
Photo by Martin Gram, courtesy of G. Schirmer, Inc.
Mark Adamo's opera Little Women began life here in Washington, as a subject suggested to the composer by Elaine Walter, artistic director of Summer Opera Theater Company, when Adamo was still in Washington. For various reasons, Adamo withdrew the opera from the little company, in favor of a later premiere in 1998, at Houston Grand Opera. This was a wise decision, because the greater media exposure from the larger company undoubtedly played some part in the opera's astounding success. Little Women has received some forty productions since its premiere, an impressive number for a modern opera in less than a decade.

One part of the work's appeal can be credited to the popularity of the story, adapted from the Louisa May Alcott novel, read by just about every bibliophilic young person raised in the United States. The rest is due to Adamo's neo-Romantic compositional style, equal parts Hollywood film score and Sondheim musical, with easily digestible dashes of dissonant spices here and there. The lengthy introduction on Saturday night by the production's director, David Grindle, nervously beseeching the audience to give their ears a chance to get used to this challenging modern opera, was utterly unnecessary. It says something about the company's conservative audience, and one hopes that Summer Opera is not punished financially too much for programming something even a little different. Adamo's style is not as saccharine as The Light in the Piazza, thank God, but this is certainly not Ferneyhough or Saariaho, after all.

Adamo's opera comes back to its birthplace in a co-production with Opera Delaware, in a frilly, decidedly unadventurous staging directed by David Grindle, with sets by Frederick M. Duer and costumes that were not created specifically for this production. If the opera looked a little precious, the music was a significant success. Having now heard the entire opera live (I heard the stunning closing ensemble a couple years ago), it is easy to see why so many companies have chosen to mount it. The libretto, adapted by the composer, is a clever repointing of the Alcott story, cutting and reshaping the essential story, while capturing some of the original's nostalgic appeal. Little Women retains an essentially modern, seamless narrative flow, while Adamo does allow his score to break into several recognizable operatic conventions.

Related Articles:

Daniel Ginsberg, A 'Little Women' That's A Little Too Familiar (Washington Post, June 18)

T. L. Ponick, 'Little Women,' big opera (Washington Times, June 18)

Lauren LaRocca, Frederick native earns lead role in 'Little Women' (Frederick News-Post, June 14)

Charles T. Downey, Mark Adamo, Four Angels, World Premiere by the National Symphony (Ionarts, June 9)
The ensembles, especially those for the four sisters, are well constructed, and there are memorable set pieces one might call "arias." One of the best is Jo's "Perfect as we are" number, in which the character, in a sort of stream of consciousness, composes one of her potboiler stories and makes connections between words and life. The Goethe aria in the second act, in which Prof. Bhaer recites Mignon's Kennst du das Land to Jo, is another great moment. The only musical component that was not immediately appealing was the wedding piece ("Ours the hours"), which sounded just a little too kitschy. The story is weighty, with plenty of tragedies, but Adamo also made the opera quite funny. Little Women will almost certainly be remembered as the first opera to contain a joke about supertitles.

The cast of this production was a dedicated ensemble of young singers, and it is appropriate to mention only those who excelled. Jenna Lebhers was in fine form in the lead role of Jo, dramatically convincing and vocally strong. Of the other sisters, Ashleigh Rabbitt was strongest as Amy, with a pure and incisive high soprano presence. Kelly Smith was a sweet and fragile Beth. James Biggs's bright tenor worked very well in the role of Laurie, who falls in love with Jo but settles for Amy. James Shaffran lent some veteran experience as Gideon March, Jo's free-thinking literary father. The sounds from the pit -- all that celesta and percussion to evoke memories of the past -- were generally very good, except for a somewhat canned electronic piano. Conductor Kate Tamarkin, who recently left the music faculty of Catholic University after a disappointingly short tenure, led convincingly and with sensitivity from the podium. If you are interested in new opera, and even if you are not, you should see this production. While not perfect, it will be your only chance to see Little Women on the stage, perhaps for a long time.

The remaining performances of Little Women are scheduled for Wednesday night (June 20, 7:30 pm) and Sunday afternoon (June 24, 2:30 pm). Summer Opera Theater returns to more traditional fare for its second production, Puccini's Tosca, on July 14, 18, and 22.

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