|About this Recording
2.110613 - ADAMO, M.: Little Women (Houston Grand Opera, 2000) (NTSC)
Mark ADAMO (b. 1962)
Opera in Two Acts
Jo – Stephanie Novacek
Composer’s note on Little Women
Little Women, that indispensable chronicle of growing up female in post-Civil War New England, has most often materialized on screen (and onstage) as the romance of a free-spirited young writer torn between the boy next door and a man of the world. Closer reading of Louisa May Alcott’s novel revealed to me a deeper theme: that even those we love will, in all innocence, wound and abandon us until we learn that their destinies are not ours to control. So I shaped a libretto in which Jo’s love for her sisters regained the power it wielded in the original novel; and imagined a finale in which Jo at last accepts that even sincerest love and strongest will cannot stave off change and loss.
Jo’s journey called to mind the Buddhist suggestion that a lesson unlearned will present itself over and over again, in slightly different guise, until at last the pilgrim makes progress and grasps the point. It suggested to me a score in which, amid a riot of inflection and colour, one could clearly hear Jo’s music of stubbornness and resistance tangling with and at last yielding to an ardent but unstoppable music of change. In fact, I wanted two scores: a character music which made the emotional journeys of the characters everywhere clear and traceable, in bold relief against a narrative music as distinct as I could make it from the thematic foreground.
So, Jo’s resistance theme and Meg’s and Laurie’s change theme, among others, are written in a free lyric language of triad and key. But those moments driven by language and story, rather than music and psychology, take a kind of dodecaphonic recitativo secco—crisp and terse, made from the twelve tones of the horn melody in the Prologue, designed to distinguish the flavor of the non-thematic dialogue. That melody also gave Jo the makings of her exuberant scherzando sections in her Act One scena, “Perfect As We Are.” This long solo, which portrays Jo’s divided feelings by disrupting her long-lined F-major cantilena with careening dodecaphonic comedy, best exemplifies what I dreamed for this piece: a music in which even the most unlike materials could fuse into a single music if the ear is sensitive and the design is sound.
I am surprised, and humbled, by the critical and popular embrace Little Women has enjoyed in the twelve years of its life. The list of those who have been generous to this work is endless; but for the truths of love and courage I have tried to reflect in this piece, I would like to thank above all my parents, Julie and the late Romeo Adamo, to whom Little Women is lovingly dedicated.
The attic of the March house: Slanting light of a dark afternoon A shimmer of strings, a tumble of voices (Four little chests…): Jo, twenty-one but feeling older, sprawled on an ancient sofa, scribbles an elegiac poem until her childhood friend (and would-be lover, once) Laurie appears in the attic doorway. Delighted, but uneasy—Laurie’s just returned from Paris, where he’s married Jo’s younger sister, Amy—Jo presses him: he hasn’t just married Amy to remain close to Jo, has he? Worse: in loving Amy (“she’s loved beyond compare, loved, loved beyond belief”) Laurie has fallen quite out of love with Jo: can she forgive him? Jo claims relief and good cheer, though a grieving orchestra, oddly, belies her: Laurie, oblivious and exultant, proposes a return to their easy rapport of years ago. Wasn’t their relationship “perfect as it was?”
This phrase maddens Jo, and deranges the scene: in scathing self-reproach (Couldn’t I unbake the breads?) Jo mocks the very idea of trying to stop time from changing the ones she loves, and the opera spirals back in time to show us what she means.
Scene 1: The attic, two years ago
Jo and her three sisters—distracted Meg, ethereal Beth, and peppery Amy—bicker and shout as they make a clubhouse of the attic (Again we meet to celebrate) and games of their household chores. Inducting Laurie as an honorary member of ‘The Barristers Club’, they launch a game of Truth or Fabrication? while sorting and folding their laundry. The game reveals that Meg’s lost glove may actually be part of some deeper secret: that Amy’s taunting of Laurie is anything but hostile; that Jo’s devotion to her sisters far outweighs her ambitions for her own writing or the very thought of a husband; and that Beth’s calm good humour hardens into brittleness at the very suggestion that her health is unsound. Alma, the girls’ mother, summons them to supper: as they go, the close harmony of their last club-song strophe (Long may our comrades prosper well) seems to affirm their intimacy.
Laurie, lingering, taunts Jo with the knowledge of where Meg’s glove is: his tutor, John Brooke, keeps it as talisman of his love for the older girl, which she may indeed return. Jo, curiously intense, scoffs at the notion that her sister and confidante would “go filling her head with lovering rubbish”. Laurie, equally intense, reminds her, “Things change”, before leaving her alone. Jo, disturbed, starts to rewrite her latest fictional melodrama, but can’t shake Laurie’s hint that Meg might soon be leaving the family. As she edits ‘The Curse of the Coventries’, Jo argues with an absent Laurie that Brooke or no Brooke, she and her sisters remain Perfect as we are.
Scene 2: The path in front of the March house, weeks later
John Brooke walks Meg home in the October twilight. Meg offers to teach him Rigmarole, a storytelling game, while Jo acts out ‘The Curse of the Coventries’ for an approving Laurie. Brooke’s Rigmarole story (There was a knight, once) is so clearly modeled on his own feelings for Meg that Laurie, overhearing, exults (though he’s less amused when Brooke compares him to a colt!) An appalled Jo bursts in and all but chases Brooke off, hounding Meg with protests: (“He’s twenty-eight! He’s got one foot in the grave!”) as they retreat into the house.
Inside, an oblivious Beth, at her piano, rewrites her musical setting of verses from Pilgrim’s Progress (She that is down need fear no fall) while Amy sketches a portrait and Alma and her husband Gideon discreetly argue. Jo marshals the entire family to plead with Meg to reject Brooke. Meg, quoting from Jo’s own “Perfect as we are” music from Scene 1, convinces Jo that rejecting Brooke was her plan all along. No sooner has she given her word than Brooke, arriving unannounced, overwhelms Meg with a bluntly ardent proposal (“Marry me! I love you”). Jo, hidden in the parlour, hisses discouragement; then Cecilia March, the girls’ arch and glamorous aunt, sweeps in. Scorning Brooke’s profession and suspecting his motives (“He knows you’ve got wealth in the family”), Cecilia only hardens Meg’s resolve; to her own surprise, Meg pledges herself to Brooke. The family congratulates the new couple while Jo, devastated, hears only a haunted memory of the club-song atop an orchestral cortège (Interlude).
Desperate, Jo accuses Meg of abandoning her. Meg, appeasing Jo as best she can, can reply only Things change, Jo. Her billowing confession of love for Brooke only wounds Jo more deeply. An implacable Jo withholds forgiveness; Meg, equally implacable, leaves Jo to her anger. Laurie, wordless, tries to console Jo; she, suspicious, shrugs him off. Amy shows Laurie her finished portrait, about which he says exactly the wrong thing; Jo seeks comfort with a sympathetic Beth as October snow begins to fall.
Scene 3: The March garden, the summer of the following year
While Alma nervously prepares for Meg’s wedding, Amy shows her new sketches to an appreciative Cecilia, and Jo, still resentful, glowers throughout. Meg and Brooke decide to use as their own wedding vows the ones Alma and Gideon wrote for their own ceremony years ago. As the parents, assisted by Beth, teach them to the young couple (We stand together), a feverish Laurie accosts Jo, and, to Meg’s music of change, confesses his desire for Jo (“It’s time things changed, Jo, between us”). Jo, to her Perfect as we are music, resists: Amy, eavesdropping, overhears their argument, as the vows are sung in the distance (Sextet). Finally, furious, Jo spurns Laurie; he, stung and enraged, flees. Amy, bursting into view, accuses Jo of heartlessness before running off to follow Laurie. Jo, regrouping from the second person in her life to abandon her for love, strategizes (to the music of her Prologue aria): if she gives Laurie time and absence, he’ll change back from a new and unwelcome lover into the friend she’s always cherished. Struck by an idea, she retreats to the house as Beth, overwhelmed by heat and weakness, collapses at the piano. Meg’s cries for help for Beth go unheeded as the act concludes.
Scene 1: The publishing offices of ‘The Daily Volcano’, a fiction tabloid based in New York City, one year later
Dashwood, the wry publisher of the New York sensation sheet, grills Jo as to why she’s come to town. She tells her story and demands to know if he’ll buy ‘The Curse of the Coventries’. Unmoved, he offers her twenty-five dollars for an edited version; Jo, tough as ever, insists on “Thirty dollars, and two free copies; I have sisters at home”.
Triumphant, Jo returns to her boarding house, and writes to her family, which, while loving as ever, is pulling apart under pressure (Letter Scene). Meg and Brooke are struggling with sleeplessness and temper as the parents of twins; Laurie has abandoned Concord for Oxford; Amy is studying art in Europe under the sponsorship of Cecilia; and Beth’s continued denial of her failing health convinces no one but herself. Even Jo finds herself distracted by the offer of light supper and the opera by a new acquaintance at her boarding house, Friedrich Bhaer, as the scene ends.
Scene 2: Jo’s boarding house, late that night, after the opera; the March parlour, at midnight; a sunny lane on the campus of Oxford, mid-afternoon
Jo and Bhaer trade histories and spiritedly argue points of taste while, in Oxford, Amy delicately sounds out Laurie on how much or little he still feels for Jo. Meanwhile, a haunted Beth, doggedly composing at midnight, at last acknowledges the defeat that awaits her and, wordlessly, rages and mourns in ever-more-dissonant strokes at the piano. Jo, playfully chiding Bhaer for the same aesthetic stiffness she thinks she sees in her father, challenges him to recommend a worthier art than the melodrama she unashamedly enjoys. Bhaer responds by reciting in the original German a poem of Goethe’s (Kennst du das land?). Jo, impressed by his grandeur but not his unintelligibility, requests a translation. Bhaer’s English rendering (Do you know the land?) is, as Brooke’s Rigmarole was, a confession of love under a mask of storytelling. Jo, moved despite herself, is distracted by a desperate telegram from Alma: Beth has taken a turn for the worse. Rejecting Friedrich’s support, Jo flees back to Concord.
Scene 3: Beth’s bedroom, three sleepless nights Later
Beth dozes in a throne of pillows as her family keeps vigil. A disheveled Jo bursts in: Beth bids her family leave the two of them alone. Frantic, Jo plumps pillows and prattles about a possible restorative trip to the seaside before Beth, with a hint of her old force, silences her. She urges Jo to accept her impending death (“Have peace, Jo”) which Jo resists until she recognizes, in Beth’s music, the same leitmotif of change that formed Meg’s and Laurie’s utterances of a year ago. “Mother and Father: you’re all they’ve got now. Promise me you’ll take care of them”, Beth insists, and Jo accedes. Relieved, spent, Beth drowses; Jo drowses beside her. When Jo awakes Beth has died. The orchestra finishes the chorale Beth did not complete as Jo remembers the vanished harmony of her sisters’ voices.
Scene 4: The path in front of the March house, the following spring
Jo, a wraith in a dark dress, sweeps the front steps while Cecilia baits her with Amy’s latest letter, which relates that she is now, at last, “loved beyond compare, loved, loved beyond belief” by Laurie. A weary Jo accepts the news, and pressed by Cecilia, admits that Friedrich Bhaer seems to have abandoned her as well; no letters from him have arrived. Strangely satisfied, Cecilia announces to Jo that she’s revised her will to leave Plumfield, her orchard estate, to Jo: her death will render Jo independent for the rest of her life. Stunned, if grateful, Jo asks why: and Cecilia, in a seductive minuet, urges Jo to use her pending wealth and power as she, Cecilia, has done—to isolate herself from the pain that loving others (like Meg, Laurie, Beth) is bound to inflict (You, alone). Jo recognizes Cecilia’s music as a nightmare transformation of her own Perfect as we are theme: appalled at this aural vision of her possible future, she rejects the stunned Cecilia and flees to the attic.
Scene 5: The attic
“What endures?” Jo asks no one, flinging herself on the sofa: and the same shimmer of strings and tumble of voices (“Four little chests”) brings us back to the very moments in which the opera began. Laurie, as before, enters the attic, apologizing to Jo and suggesting, innocently, that they two go back to the “perfect way it was”; but this time Jo demurs. “The happy old times can’t come back, and we mustn’t expect it”, she tells him. Relieved, admiring, Laurie leaves her in peace. Overwhelmed by feeling, Jo calls on her memories of the sisters of her girlhood (“Barristers! It’s quarter past!”), and ghostlike, they materialize. In forgiveness and gratitude, she celebrates what they were and releases them to what they are now (Let me look at you); they join in harmony a final time before disappearing forever.
Unexpectedly, the attic door opens a third time: it’s not Laurie but Friedrich, in town by chance and eager to see her. “Is now the good moment?” he asks. “Now is all there is”, Jo realizes: she extends her hand to him as the opera concludes.
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