Madison Opera Stands Tall for “Little Women”

(Eric Neuville as Laurie and Courtney Miller as Meg in Mark Adamo’s Little Women. Photo by James Gill).

In presenting Mark Adamo’s 1998 operatic treatment of Little Women, Madison Opera continued a strong and welcome tradition of presenting worthy recent works, particularly by American composers, and effectively utilizing the more intimate Capitol Theater. When a New York Times critic dubbed the premiere “some sort of masterpiece” it was no hyperbole: According to one recent count, the opera has now had presentations in at least ninety venues.

What a near-capacity crowd experienced Friday night was exactly what the critic described, for Little Women is an opera that rewards repeated hearings/viewings, but, like all but the handful of absolute operatic masterpieces, shares a couple of flaws.

In one sense, Adamo is the victim of his own gifts; acting as both composer and librettist, one occasionally gets the sense that he cannot escape from the wonderful web of words he has woven from Louisa May Alcott’s cherished novel. (Richard Wagner had a similar problem, compounded by the fact that he considered himself legitimately a cross between Beethoven and Shakespeare. Of course he was no more than half right, and only some of the time!).

Adamo’s other predicament is that he can create a stunning array of sounds from an instrumental ensemble of only twenty players, and while he’s at it, juggle fluid vocal ensembles that often palpably exult in the sheer virtuosity of the dialogues, which leads to, what shall we call it…the modern and/or American problem of opera composers of the last several decades: They rarely spin a memorable melody that just seems inexorably created to sing. We experienced this again last summer at Santa Fe Opera, in Jennifer Higdon’s otherwise arresting Cold Mountain. Having spun this caveat, let me complete the perspective—what Adamo does often give us are motifs, sometimes longer sequences, that immediately tug at the heartstrings and make a solid effort to stick in the ear.

If this preamble leads the reader to waver as to whether to take a chance on the second and final performance Sunday at 2:30 p.m., let me switch gears and urge you to find a ticket. Some of the greatest composers (Schubert, for one, could write incredible melodies  for the voice), failed to achieve what Adamo has nailed: finding the dramatic heartbeat of his material, and even arguably illuminating it more effectively than the original source.

Thus we find Jo, some months after her sister Beth’s death, and the return of dear friend Laurie recently returned having married another sister, Amy, agonizing over her inability to hold onto the “perfect” way things once were. Suddenly we’re back three years earlier, and see the events played out. But where many readers interpret Alcott’s story as Jo’s struggle for personal expression and greatness, Adamo explores the inevitability of change—and Jo’s eventual acceptance of it.

General director Kathryn Smith has a wonderful track record (along with artistic director John DeMain) in blending young singers whose careers are on the rise and make their company debuts with similar artists who return here. Of the fifteen (!) singers required in this work, seven made their debuts, and one of the primary strengths of this production is the overall ensemble of singers, most of whom proved fine actors as well.

Debuts carried over to the production side as well, with Todd Hensley debuting as lighting designer, Matthew Haber as projection and video designer. The latter created one marvelous effect after another with white-silhouetted projections on a gauzy scrim, clocks in the opening scene, later a 19th-century skyline of London, or a swath of calligraphy for Jo’s writing. Candace Evans returned to direct, and did a superb job of managing fluid emotional dynamics without letting the stage just look cluttered or busy for its own sake (and there are times when ten or more singers are on stage). Karen Brown-Lattimore did another wonderful job with costumes, as did Jan Ross with make-up and wigs.

The twenty instrumental players were at the back of the stage, and not conducted by John DeMain as per usual (he’s at Washington National Opera most of this month), but rising star Kyle Knox. This is easily the biggest assignment of Knox’s steadily growing career, and he was in full control from start to finish. The orchestral score is as multi-layered as the vocal ensembles, perhaps more so at times, and there was never a moment that sounded as though anyone was barely hanging on. I can’t pretend to know the work well, but I did get to watch the Naxos DVD of the Houston Grand Opera 2000 revival (the same company premiered it in 1998). I suspect that many who saw the opera Friday or attend Sunday will be interested in seeing the video; a couple of copies at least are in the Dane County library system. A footnote: Given the higher than usual verbiage of the libretto, it wasn’t too surprising to discover some gaps in the video production’s subtitles; by the same token, Madison Opera did a phenomenal job of providing the bulk of most lines, and timing it impressively.

With so large a cast and such a strong group effort, it is difficult to give every individual their due. But certainly the work falls flat without a strong artist as Jo, and Heather Johnson anchors the proceedings with strong vocalism and wonderful theatrical timing. A major treat proved to be Alexander Elliott (in a company debut) as Brooke; his scene where he gradually makes his feelings known to Meg garnered the first major applause during the action. His eventual wife, Meg, was the winsome and confident Courtney Miller. Eric Neuville was a solid Laurie, while Jeni Houser as Amy and Chelsea Morris Shephard as Beth completed the quartet of sisters.

Bottom line: Once again, it is hard to imagine a much better operatic situation for a city the size of Madison. Smith and DeMain and their staff, both administratively and per each production, continue to produce high-quality operatic experiences that run the gamut from last fall’s cherishable La Boheme to newer works such as Little Women. They utilize two great venues, continue to find singers both deserving of opportunities and rewarding to hear, and it seems like a long time since anything fell terribly flat at Madison Opera. I believe their winning streak will continue; I encourage you to root them on.

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2 thoughts on “Madison Opera Stands Tall for “Little Women”

  1. I have nothing I can say about UW-Madison’s opera work but today’s luncheon recital @ the First Unitarian Society was another truly world-class ensemble that I’d never heard before. The New Muse Ensemble–st. 4tet, flute, French horn & piano–is another student group originating at UW-Madison’s music school. The group performed a program of generally recent, to say not necessarily modern, music from Zoltan Kodaly’s Serenade No. 12 for 2 Violins & Viola to Robert Ward’s Small Serenade for Horn, Violin, Viola, and Cello. The flutist appeared in Jonathan Russ’s Devotion for Flute, Cello & Piano, a much more subdued piece than the others. The entire ensemble demonstrated superior precision, excellent balance, and spot-on intonation. The most interesting elements included the flutist & cellist humming instead of playing during the piano intro & coda of the Devotion: a well done arch form. Though small–normally between 50 & 100–the audience is always extremely appreciative and applaud long and loud for the performers. The listeners must be fairly knowledgeable musicians or they wouldn’t be so grateful. There are almost always new faces who are friends of the musicians judy as there are also always “old-hand” regulars like me who attend every possible concert, not just because it’s gratis and offers free coffee and tea but because the Frank Lloyd Wright building boasts superior acoustics in a very bright and comfortable setting. Though parking is sometimes tight the whole spectacle could hardly be better. It represents the UW-Madison Music School extremely well.

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    1. Hi Larry! Sorry I haven’t replied to you earlier — I love your comments and so appreciate you following my blog. I’m in Janesville for the day on a bus trip (HS wrestling). I do want to write more soon, esp re Ozawa. Blessings!

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