By Paul Rapp
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
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.