26 May 2016

Returning to ‘Little Women,’ or How Mark Adamo Concord Me

Where it began: the HGO cast in 2000.
Margaret Lloyd, Stacey Tappan, Stephanie Novacek, Joyce DiDonato (my first glimpse of her).

I first saw Mark Adamo’s opera, Little Women, in 2001, a video of the production from Houston Grand Opera (a revival of the world premiere, from 1998) projected on the wall of a New York City hotel room for the benefit of music writers who wouldn’t be able to watch the broadcast on PBS a few days later. The next year, I attended a performance at the Glimmerglass Festival — and I got a sense of the work’s power to move listeners. During Beth’s death scene, a man began to sob and ran out of the theater. The Glimmerglass production took the stage at New York City Opera in 2003, where I saw it again. A performance at the Seagle Music Colony in 2004 was the last that I would see — until now.

I’d kept up with Mark and his work in the meantime. My interview with him, for a profile in Opera News in 2001, represented the first of many long conversations that have led to a rewarding friendship. I’ve heard much but not all of the stage work he’s written since Little Women: I’ve attended two performances of his Lysistrata and watched his Becoming Santa Claus — a live simulcast from Dallas, projected on another wall in New York.

But what would I think of Little Women upon hearing it again after all this time? “Things change, Jo,” as Meg observes in the opera, and so of course do I. Little Women was Mark’s first opera, crafted on a much smaller scale than Becoming Santa Claus and the grand Lysistrata. Twelve years ago, I wasn’t hearing nearly as many new operas as I do today, and even a work I admired — Berg’s Lulu — contained passages I didn’t learn to love until last fall, when the Met unveiled its new production. My tastes are changing.

Composer-librettist-conversationalist: Mark Adamo.

Even my admiration for Little Women developed gradually. The libretto won me over from the get-go, and thanks to Mark’s understanding that “almost alone among adolescent protagonists in classic American fiction (Tom Sawyer, Holden Caulfield, Roth’s Portnoy), [Jo is] happy where she is,” I’ll never think about Alcott’s novel the same way. As Mark dramatizes the story, Jo learns to accept change — and she’s powerless to resist it. (Her only option, represented by her fearsome Aunt March, is to seal herself off from the world — to bury herself alive in “a house of stone.”) That’s a good deal more compelling than the plot of a novel I found sticky-sweet and infuriatingly girly. And as a stage work, the opera provided performers with plenty of chances to shine — something that’s important to me as an unabashed diva-worshipper.

But the music took a little longer. Not terribly long, but in retrospect I think that I, like so many others, expected an operatic adaptation of Little Women to sound like either Aaron Copland or Stephen Foster. It sounds like neither, and its only concession to the music of anyone other than Mark Adamo is Professor Bhaer’s Schubertian Lied “Kennst du das Land?” — so achingly beautiful that you’re grateful when he sings it a second time, in English. It’s a clever composer who writes the singer’s encore into the opera. And the song makes it easier than ever before to understand why Jo settles for the Professor.

The trick of false expectations is that they can sometimes blind (or in this case, deafen) us to reality. Only at Glimmerglass was I able to begin to set aside my ideas about what I wasn’t hearing, and to pay attention to the music Mark actually wrote. The orchestral ensemble is small, so that a certain “American” openness is built in, and 16 years after I first heard it, the music is still fresh, even bracing. The vocal writing is gratifying to young singers especially, and where the music is spiky, “modern,” rebellious, uncompromising — well, aren’t those the qualities we cherish in Jo? You may think you want Stephen Foster, but what you require is Mark Adamo. He knows how to tell this story in sound.

At the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on May 7, Joseph Colaneri led the Mannes Opera and the Mannes Orchestra in a production staged by Laura Alley. Insofar as the staging of a new opera can be traditional, this one was, and it looked a lot like the original production in Houston. My only quibbles were with the men’s hats (no, they wouldn’t wear them indoors) and the brief moment when Jo sets time in reverse (insufficiently clear). I’m always reluctant to write about student casts by name — the whole point is for them to learn, not for them to be perfect, or even to seek our approval. (Mine least of all.) But I’m happy to report that everyone performed with spirit, and mezzo Melanie Ashkar reminded me that Jo is a tour-de-force role, seldom offstage and usually singing. Colaneri elicited polished playing from his ensemble, and thus he gave me a real chance to concentrate on the music.

Again and again, I found myself recognizing a theme that, I knew, would return later in the opera. I heard details in the orchestration that I hadn’t noticed before. I smiled at the familiar. I chuckled at the jokes. I looked forward to pleasures. And as I listened, I realized that this is what I do with any opera for which admiration has turned to affection, whether it’s La Traviata or Lulu — or, by now, even Dog Days. Over the years, Little Women has become a contemporary classic and a pillar of the standard repertory.

Its status as such is confirmed by the myriad productions it receives — I’m told that this year alone there will be something like a dozen, maybe more — and by the ways in which audiences and young musicians take it to heart. You needn’t take my word for it. Just listen.

Ava Pine in Mark’s Lysistrata at Fort Worth Opera.

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