, February 2011
ADAMO, M.: Little Women (Houston Grand Opera, 2000) (NTSC) 2.110613
ADAMO, M.: Little Women (Houston Grand Opera, 2000) (Blu-ray, HD) NBD0007
The DVD notes claim “more than seventy national and international engagements” for Mark Adamo’s first opera, an extraordinary record. This season alone has seen the work at Pensacola Opera in January, with performances at Utah Opera and University of Michigan planned for March. With a libretto by the composer after the Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Women was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, performed by the HGO Studio in March 1998 and presented as part of the HGO regular season in March 2000, when it was filmed for PBS at the Wortham Center’s 1,100-seat Cullen Theater.
Above all, Little Women is well crafted and superbly balanced. Adamo’s lyrical, tonal “character music” gets more time than does his crisp, twelve-tone “narrative music,” but neither feels dominant; changing from one to the other often has a striking dramatic effect but sometimes feels nearly seamless. The balance of sentiment and irony is close to ideal. For me, sentiment spills over into sentimentality just once, when Jo speaks to Laurie for thirty-five seconds in the last scene. Unity is achieved through recurring verbal and musical motifs and by strict adherence to the theme—Jo’s learning to accept that “things change.”
One might ask why intelligent Jo struggles so hard to learn that, or note how homely the theme seems for a work created between John Adams operas on terrorism and the atomic bomb. But surely Little Women’s very domesticity is vital to its performability and its appeal. Adamo’s skill at setting everyday language suggests (without equaling) the Britten of Albert Herring; like that libretto, this one can be quite sophisticated, as in Jo and Bhaer’s repartee in the Act II nocturne.
Little Women has much memorable music: Laurie’s and later Amy’s soaring expressions of love; Jo’s “Perfect as we are,” shuttling between warm cantilena and spiky recitation of one of her lurid tales; Meg’s “Things change, Jo,” with phrases of contrasting length and pianissimo held notes; the letter ensemble, with eight characters tossing back and forth the “write soon” refrain; Bhaer’s long-lined, romantic Goethe reading; Beth’s death scene, with undulating strings and changing harmonies; Jo and the sisters’ poignantly harmonized last aria and quartet. What is most disappointing is the going-nowhere hymn, as Alma and Gideon March recall their wedding vows: Adamo seems to waste his Act I finale to show that Beth as a composer is ineffectual.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek is a magnificent Jo, making her likeable even at her most intrusive and stubborn, persuasive in sentiment and irony, dominant vocally and visually. As Jo’s sisters, mezzo Joyce DiDonato brings strength of voice and character to the one Adamo calls “elegant Meg,” soprano Stacey Tappan brings lovely, transparent tone to “ethereal Beth,” and soprano Margaret Lloyd brings point and personality to “peppery Amy.” As the girls’ male friends, tenor Chad Shelton sings Laurie with ardency and squillo, baritone Daniel Belcher sings Brooke smoothly, and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan, who looks young for Bhaer, sings with exemplary legato. As the girls’ parents, baritone James Maddalena is a gentle, understated Gideon, and mezzo Gwendolyn Jones ranges from gentle to commanding as Alma. Mezzo Katherine Ciesinski is scorching as Cecilia March, the no-nonsense, anti-romantic aunt. Bass-baritone Derrick Parker’s solid Mr Dashwood completes a cast without weakness.
Adamo and conductor Patrick Summers draw plenty of color from a twenty-musician orchestra. Peter Webster’s stage direction on Christopher McCollum’s five-level set and Brian Large’s video direction are lively and apt. The DVD sound is excellent, the picture superb.