About this Recording
8.669034-35 - LAITMAN, L.: Scarlet Letter (The) [Opera](Claycomb, D. Armstrong, MacKenzie, Belcher, Opera Colorado Chorus and Orchestra, Pelto)

Lori Laitman (b. 1955)
The Scarlet Letter (2008, rev. 2015–16)


Opera in Two Acts
Libretto by David Mason (b. 1954)
Based on the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64)
Commissioned by The University of Central Arkansas through Robert Holden and the UCA Opera Program

Cast in order of vocal appearance

A Sailor – Charles Eaton, Baritone
A Farmer – Benjamin Werley, Tenor
Goodwife 1 – Emily Robinson, Soprano
John Wilson, an elder minister – Kyle Knapp, Tenor
Governor Bellingham – Daniel Belcher, Baritone
Arthur Dimmesdale, a young minister – Dominic Armstrong, Tenor
Congregation Leader – William Bryan, Baritone
Goodwife 2 – Becky Bradley, Soprano
Goodwife 3 – Danielle Lombardi, Mezzo-soprano
Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s long-missing husband – Malcolm MacKenzie, Baritone
Hester Prynne, a young seamstress – Laura Claycomb, Soprano
Mistress Hibbons, a witch – Margaret Gawrysiak, Mezzo-soprano
A Shipmaster – William Bryan, Baritone
Pearl, Hester’s daughter – Maiah Howie (non-speaking role)

First published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is one of the most familiar of all American literary works, the title alone having established itself in the popular lexicon. That the story is also a love triangle, as well as a moral allegory may have escaped some readers, but not composer Lori Laitman and librettist David Mason. A focused set of central characters—built-in conflict between those characters—potential for large choral scenes—a dramatic denouement: those features seemed ideal for the operatic stage. Streamline the language to craft singable lines; use the music to paint the characters in the most vivid fashion possible, the better to increase the story’s immediacy for listeners. Just as the greatest opera composers of past generations have faced those challenges, Laitman and Mason approached them again from a 21st-century perspective.

All three central characters stand brilliantly in the spotlight. Hester’s music varies from scene to scene. As the curtain rises to reveal her, with infant Pearl in her arms, standing before her neighbors, the music is more resolute than shamed, and one feels at once that Hester is equal to her burden. Firm and unyielding with her husband, she is gentle and encouraging with the father of her child, and in Act Two, she shifts musically from one to the other in short order. Hester’s love duet with Dimmesdale is especially revealing, beginning as it does with the two singers first alternating lines with one another, then beginning to overlap musically speaking, and finally blending together in harmony, as if expressive of their closeness with one another. Mozart had used that approach in his famed duet ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni; that master composer would likely be impressed that Laitman thought to employ it here.

Her lover Dimmesdale is the character who, both musically and dramatically, undergoes the greatest growth. Mistress Hibbons demands of him, ‘Who do you think you are?’ a question Dimmesdale poses to himself again and again, in ever new musical terms. Evolving from shorter phrases to gradually more expansive statements, Dimmesdale’s evolving music suggests an increasing self-awareness. By the final scene, one may well sympathize with him, which might not have been the case in Hawthorne’s novel. Together, Laitman’s music and Mason’s text allow Dimmesdale to grow more than he did originally. In any dramatic art form, one likes to see characters be changed by their experiences; Dimmesdale’s music is an expression of that process.

The husband Chillingworth, too, wears varied musical masks. When in Hester’s company, his lines are gruff and determined, like the voice of a man who is sure of being in the right and determined to prove it. By contrast, once he has befriended Dimmesdale, apparently suspecting the other man of being Hester’s lover, Chillingworth takes on a smoother, more insinuating character. He still seeks vengeance, but wants answers first, so in the scenes of the two men together, Chillingworth’s music is mellower in spirit, both vocally and in the instrumental support. That Laitman has stocked her orchestra with an abundance of varied woodwinds proves an advantage, as the diverse instrumental timbres do much to shade the general flavor of any given melodic line.

Laitman places the principal characters in very specific niches within their respective ranges. Hester’s lines lie on the higher, lighter side of the soprano realm, more coloratura in spirit than lyric. As for the men, Dimmesdale has scarcely any coloratura writing, but neither is he a Wagnerian Heldentenor; the minister’s music makes him a conflicted young man, rather than a bold adventurer. Despite being the closest thing to a villain in the opera, Chillingworth is a Puccini-esque baritone, rather than a stereotypical bass. Like Dimmesdale, he is a troubled soul, not just an embodiment of the dark side.

Around the central trio one finds other characters for whom Laitman has also used musical tools to underline roles. Mistress Hibbons’ music has restless, generally unpredictable rhythms evocative of the character’s outsider status in the community. As for Pearl, by Act Two, she needs to be a young girl, no longer a babe in arms. To facilitate casting, Laitman has written the part as a non-singing role. However, the character is still a crucial dramatic presence. Using light-hearted phrases to represent Pearl playing in the forest is but one way in which Laitman brings the character to musical life.

Along with the protagonists, there is also the issue of the community and how it judges Hester. In fact, it is the community that comes first to the listeners’ attention, in the opening pages intoning ‘One law’ in shades of moody gray. It is law, as much as Chillingworth, that has condemned Hester—librettist Mason emphasizes that point from the very first words. The theme recurs, and for it, Laitman has crafted a stern motif, representative of the unforgiving Puritan culture in which the protagonists live. Mason attests that he wished to bring out ‘the moral texture of the book, or human law vs. the law of nature and life.’ Laitman’s music reinforces the point. Let the characters get out into the forest, and they are given freer, less constrained music than they have in the village. In Hawthorne’s own time, the idea of nature as a purifying influence was beloved in literature. The author and his contemporaries would likely be pleased to find their concept captured so vividly in music, as it is here in Latiman’s The Scarlet Letter, which premiered May 7, 2016.


Setting: mid-1600s Boston

Act One

A crowd gathers to gawk at young Hester Prynne, charged with adultery. With the damning scarlet ‘A’ on her breast, she appears on the platform clutching her infant daughter, Pearl. In the crowd is the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, unacknowledged father of her child. Also present is Hester’s long-lost husband, unrecognized and now using the name Roger Chillingworth. Declaring that he will discover the identity of her lover, he confronts Hester in her prison cell, but fails to learn what he is determined to know. After he leaves, Hester sings a lullaby to her child, ‘the Pearl beyond all price.’

The Chorus reflects on the passage of time. Several years pass, and Pearl is now a young girl. Governor Bellingham and other leaders of Boston debate whether Hester should be permitted to keep her child, who they fear is not being raised in a suitably Christian manner. Chillingworth takes rooms with the young minister Arthur Dimmesdale, who is concealing from all the fact that he is the father of Hester’s child. Although taunted by the local witch Mistress Hibbons, Dimmesdale will not confess, and Chillingworth begins to sense that the minister is concealing something. Dimmesdale, almost overwhelmed by his guilt, is in ever-failing health.

Act Two

In the forest, Chillingworth accosts Hester once more, demanding to know her lover’s name, but again failing to force her to any revelation. After Chillingworth departs, Hester is approached by Dimmesdale. They muse on the possibility of fleeing the community, and it becomes clear that Pearl is coming to recognize Dimmesdale as her father. Plans are made for all three to sail back to Europe and begin their lives anew, to ‘know joy again.’ However, Dimmesdale, unable to set aside his guilt, chooses an Election Day rally to confess to the crowd, revealing a letter ‘A’ branded on his own chest. Hester and Pearl join him on the platform, but Dimmesdale’s heart finally gives out, and he falls dead at their feet. Chillingworth rages at having lost the target for his hatred. A choral epilogue resolves the story for mother and child.

Betsy Schwarm
Author of the Classical Music Insights series

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