Judging from the full-dress rehearsal of Mark Adamo’s Little Women, at the CAPA Theater on Thursday night, there is every reason to believe that Pittsburgh Opera’s presentation of the work will enjoy the success it has achieved across America and abroad since its first performance in 1998. The composer-librettist’s ambitious work was first commissioned by the Opera Studio of Houston Grand Opera, and while a number of composers have set their sights on classic literary works only to find themselves in deep, dangerous, and eventually insurmountable waters, Adamo’s operatic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel has enjoyed numerous revivals across this country, Japan, Belgium, Australia, Israel and elsewhere. It’s been televised as a PBS “Great Performances” co-production between Houston Grand Opera and WNET, New York, and a recording taken from live performances at the Houston Grand Opera in March 2000 has been released on a CD set by Ondine, a Finnish label. For the first opera of a young man who not only composed the music, but adapted the great novel to his own libretto, this more than successful history of Adamo’s comparatively new work says a great deal. The second act is the stronger of the two, but the first contains many delights nonetheless.
Adamo has effectively condensed the essence of the lengthy novel into a two-act opera that runs slightly over two hours. To do so, of course, many situations and characters in the novel are omitted, and a complex but effective staging is necessary to capture action that takes place simultaneously in different locations. This requires a great deal of scene shifting – and of ensemble singing, a lot of it in “recitative” form, with a satisfying number of arias and duets interspersed that are melodious enough in their way. Except for a few very brief spoken passages, the text floats on exceptionally difficult vocal lines supported by an 18-piece ensemble under the direction of Glenn Lewis. The results are a unique combination of something approaching chamber music mingling with contemporary opera. The light yet complex orchestration gives the work a sense of intimacy that fits the atmosphere of the novel quite well.
The stage settings and costume designs are creative and effective, if somewhat – and necessarily – minimalistic, and the work is in the hands of a quite capable cast. Corrie Stallings, in the role of Jo March, faces perhaps the most challenging music, and the way she acquitted herself in the rehearsal portends even greater things to be expected of her in the upcoming performances. She looks and acts the role quite effectively, and displayed on many occasions that she has a firm grasp on Adamo’s intricate score. She carries herself well through both the comic and melodramatic scenes, and her fine mezzo-soprano has many opportunities for display. Laurel Semerdjian, as Meg March, offered what local operagoers in recent years have come to take for granted from her – a lovely voice and appearance, and acting skills that keep her in whatever character she happens to be performing. Her rendition of “Things change, Jo,” with Ms. Stallings, provided some of the finest singing of the evening.
The other two March sisters, Amy and the sickly Beth, were sung and acted by Claudia Rosenthal and Adelaide Boedecker, respectively – and quite respectably. Both of the young artists acquitted themselves well, vocally and histrionically, and stood out in the rather busy ensemble. Leah de Gruyl, as the girls’ wealthy and manipulative Aunt Cecelia, made the most of her role, particularly in the second act, and she, too, displayed singing and acting abilities that lifted a secondary character into considerable prominence. Kara Cornell, as Mrs. March, made the most of her comparatively small role.
A “Coro Quartet,” which sings the brief prologue, and a few passages elsewhere, consisted of Samantha DeStefano, Gail Novack-Mosites, Kathryn Ambrose Sereno and Katy Shackleton Williams. Any time Chorus Master Mark Trawka has capable voices at his command, the results are fairly well guaranteed to be impressive in keeping with the composer’s intentions.
Little Women provides many impressive moments for the male singing actors, as well. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, a prominent character in the novel and opera as well, was taken by Adam Bonanni. This young tenor is a familiar face to anyone who has attended just about any opera produced in Pittsburgh in the last year or two. This is perhaps the largest role he has yet to undertake, and it was obvious that he has made strides as a vocalist. He delivered quite a bit of the best singing in which he has yet to be heard. Histrionically, he has displayed on past occasions a slight tendency to stray from the picture, but as the performance seen was but a dress rehearsal, he might very well have made improvements in that direction as well that will be seen in the upcoming performances.
Matthew Scollin, as Friedrich Bhaer, made an impression that dominated the male contingent, both vocally and in appearance and action. His singing, in German (then English), of “Kennst Du Das Land, Wo Die Zitronen Bluhn?” (“Do You Know The Land Where The Lemon Trees Bloom?”), was a highlight of the evening. Brian Vu, as John Brooke, was effective as well, and Daniel Teadt, as Gideon March and Mr. Dashwood, did double duty as the only other male characters to survive the transition from novel to opera.
Performances of the opera will take place on January 23, 26, 29 and 31 (the Sunday matinee), and patronage of the production is very much recommended. For full production, cast, schedule and ticket information, please visit Pittsburgh Opera
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for accommodating the dress rehearsal attendance.
“The Artistic Team” for Little Women –
Glenn Lewis, Conductor; Crystal Manich, Stage Director; Shengxin Jin, Set Designer; Susan Memmott-Allred, Costume Designer; Tlàloc Lopez-Watermann, Lighting Designer; Mark Trawka, Chorus Master; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Nicole Pagano, Hair & Makeup Designer; Cindy Knight, Stage Manager; Photography, David Bachman Photography