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Prim and Proper
By Paul Rapp

Little Women
Glimmerglass Opera, Aug. 17

Little Women, Mark Adamoís adaptation of the much-adored 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, is a fairly unique animal. Most new American operas debut to a lot of hoopla, then fade away, probably because the music is unlistenable to traditional ears and because the spectacle of the debut production is not reproducible by regional opera companies.

Not so hereósince its debut in 1998, Little Women has had at least 10 performances, rave reviews (ďFinally, the Great American Opera!Ē ďAn instant classic!Ē etc., etc.), and is on its way, by way of Glimmerglass, to its New York debut by the New York City Opera this coming season.

All the hosannas are a bit much, but the piece is good; it has legs.

Perhaps the best thing Little Women has going for it is the fact that this is a book everybody has read (or says they have read), and itís a story that is universally loved. Adamoís libretto follows the basic outline and the ethos of the book faithfully and remarkably, given the amount of condensation that has to take place. Joís conflict with change and passage of time is central throughout; the sisters and other characters are all well defined. In other words, if you like the book, youíre gonna like this opera.

The music is a little problematic. There is a dearth of arias; an awful lot of time is spent with characters in singing dialogue, something needed, maybe, to move the plot along, but here formless musically. When somebody stepped out and let one rip, the music was often less than inspiring. Within an aria, from phrase to phrase it seemed as though Adamo was trying to figure out whether he wanted to recall Richard Rodgers or to emulate Arnold Shoenberg. His liberal use of a 12-tone scale didnít help things from an accessibility standpoint either. The only aria that truly hung together and galvanized the audience was when that nice German fellow Friederich Bhaer (finely represented by Joshua Hopkins) wooed Jo by singing a Goethe poem, first in German, then in English. Perhaps the restrictions of a prewritten poem kept Adamo from jumping around from influence to influence. In any event, it proved Adamo can write a thrilling melody when he wants to.

The sets, strangely, would have been considered conservative in Peoria. My previous experiences at Glimmerglass were Technicolor to the point of psychedelic. Here, the sets were minimal, sparse and colorless. Both the sets and the costumes were slavishly in the period of the original novel, and aside from an occasional vase of flowers, the only colors on stage were gray, black and brown. Curtains were used to change the shape of the performing area, and often the performance was taking place within the confines of a small portion of the stage. The play itself became smaller as a result.

One wonders why Glimmerglass takes such liberties with old, revered pieces, but treats a new piece with such restraint. Perhaps itís because the new piece hasnít had the gestation time necessary for a director to make a bold comment on it. Maybe itís because with an old piece the creator isnít around to bitch about the violence being done to his work. In any event, Little Women is pleasant, inoffensive and tells its story wonderfully. It will likely still be kicking around in 50 years, and maybe then Glimmerglass will feature a production with gender reversals, love affairs with aliens, and the girlsí parents in fluorescent football uniforms, or something.

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