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Mark Adamo: Little Women
31 Jan 2011

Mark Adamo, Little Women

Mark Adamo’s opera, based on the famous novel by Louisa May Alcott, contains one extraordinary scene, a model of how to adapt fiction into opera.

Mark Adamo: Little Women

Jo: Stephanie Novacek; Meg: Joyce DiDonato; Laurie: Chad Shelton; Beth: Stacey Tappan; Amy: Margaret Lloyd; John Brooke: Daniel Belcher; Friedrich Bhaer: Chen-Ye Yuan; Cecilia March: Katherine Ciesinski; Gideon Marche: James Maddalena; Alma March: Gwendolyn Jones; Mr Dashwood: Derrick Parker. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. Patrick Summers, conductor. Peter Webster, stage director. Christopher McCollum, set designer. Melissa Graff, costume designer. David M. Plevan, lighting designer. Directed for TV by Brian Large. Recorded live from the Cullen Theatre, Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas, 17-18 March 2000.

Naxos NBD0007 [Blu-Ray]

$39.99  Click to buy

This is the second scene of act 2, in which the four sisters are all on stage at once even though they are supposed to be in different corners of the world: Adamo has beautifully synchronized the drama-counterpoint between the four different theatres, so that at the same instant that Jo, the independent author-heroine, is singing to Professor Bhaer of her coldness to the idea of marriage, Amy is warming to the same idea; in another division of the stage space the dying Beth is playing a clunky emphatic tune on the piano, ending with a smash on the keyboard. In a novel such events are usually strung out into separate narratives; here they attain something of the co-presence of important events as they meld in our memories. The music unites, but also differentiates the scenes: the piano smash is poised against the finely sustained and punctuated melody to which Professor Bhaer recites Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land,” a melody that has a number of harmonic touches characteristic of the German Lied. It might be objected that by making Bhaer such an attractive character Adamo fails to register Alcott’s own doubt about the propriety of marrying off her main character—Alcott felt that she was giving in to her readers’ wishes, and that Jo should have remained a literary spinster; but this is a tiny objection in a scene worked out with great dramatic and compositional care.

Elsewhere, the text and the dramaturgy remain effective, but the music is not so good. There is a good aria, Meg’s “Things change,” Jo, in which she insists on her right to marry despite Jo’s fear of breaking up the family. But there is a fatal lack of contrast, which leads to insipidity, in the absence of more melodic invention than Adamo can muster. He speaks in his program note of the contrast between the tonal music that accompanies presentation of character, versus the dodecaphonic music that accompanies narrative. But if there is dodecaphony, it is the most harmless and unobtrusive dodecaphony I’ve ever heard. Everywhere the music is pallidly peppy for the cheerful scenes, pallidly swoony for the romantical scenes, and pallidly droopy for the sad scenes. Everything in this innocuous music says, “Nothing At Stake Here.”

There is, however, one glorious musical moment, near the beginning, when the sisters sing, in subtle and potent four-part harmony, the word sorority; and again, at the end, when Beth is resurrected in order to complete the four-part harmony on the term One soul. Here the family feeling to which Jo desperately tries to retain through most of the opera is given intense expression.

The singing is good throughout, though the acting is generally bland, a condition not easy to overcome given the blandness of so much of the music. But the remarkably gifted Jo, Stephanie Novacek, registers in facial expression and physical gesture and shifts of voice-color the full range of the opera’s drama—maybe an even fuller range than Adamo himself provides.

Daniel Albright


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