Cher Public

“Little,” Joyce

I’ve had this DVD sitting in my apartment for literally months – mea culpa, La – and I finally got around to watching Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women last weekend. Commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the piece received almost unanimous critical and popular acclaim when it premiered in 1998. This DVD was recorded for television at a subsequent performance in 2000.

Adamo adapted the libretto himself from the classic book by Louisa May Alcott. In the “Composer’s Notes,” he says, “Little Women has most often materialized on screen 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 reveled 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. Jo’s journey called to mind the Buddhist suggestion that a lesson unlearned will present itself over and over again until the pilgrim makes progress and grasps the point.”

I never really thought of Little Women as a metaphor for a Buddhist journey of enlightenment, and though I concede the point that Jo does make an emotional journey, I’m not convinced that as a starting point it does the opera any good. For all the energy Adamo’s occasionally brilliant score whips up, it never soars. This wrong-headed notion about some “deeper theme” consistently robs the music, the story, and most importantly, the characters of their charm and humanity. What should be joyful is just frenetic, what should be funny or touching seems false and contrived. Even in a sure-fire, tear-jerk moment like Beth’s death scene, I was not particularly moved.

Like everyone else who sees the cover of this CD, I thought Joyce DiDonato was singing Jo. That is not the case. Di Donato sings Meg, and she infuses the character with a warmth, beauty, charm and vocal grace that is a sheer delight. Even in 1998, it was as clear as the nose on your face that here was a singer who could bring Jo to life—even on a Buddhist journey of enlightenment.

Instead, Jo is sung by mezzo Stephanie Novacek, neither a bad singer nor a bad actress, buta lousy Jo. In her hands, Jo is transformed from the plucky, independent, awkward young lady of the story, into a girl who is stodgy, petulant, self-centered, domineering, and downright mean. Was this the fault of the performer, the composer, or the director? It’s hard to tell, but it nearly ruins the opera.

Beth and Amy are sung by Stacey Tappan and Margaret Lloyd, respectively. Both are sopranos, but neither is very good. Their singing and acting come across as decidedly amateurish.  Thing improve considerably every time Katherine Ciesinski (Alma March) comes onstage. Her wonderfully arch performance and dramatic singing dominate every scene she is in.

Mezzo Gwendolyn Jones and Baritone James Maddalena are perfectly fine and perfectly forgettable as Mamma and Papa Marsh. In their defense, Mr. Adamo doesn’t give them much to work with.

Maddalena aside, the men fare better than the women in this performance. Chad Shelton brings youthful ardor and a nicely produced lyric tenor voice to the part of Laurie. (It’s not easy to pull of marrying your girlfriend’s sister behind her back and maintaining the good-will of the audience at the same time.) Meg’s suitor, John Brooke, is nicely sung by baritone Daniel Belcher. Jo’s friend and neighbor, Friedrich Bhaer is beautifully vocalized by bass-baritone Chen-Ye Yuan. For my taste, Bhaer’s moving “Kennst du das land,” is the best music in the score, and Mr. Yuan takes full advantage of the opportunity.

The original production was directed by Peter Webster and this television performance was directed by Brian Large. In spite of the clever set, good camera work, and some thoughtful directorial touches, they are still saddled with a questionably structured, Buddhist journey of enlightenment. If you watch this DVD, be warned that the first scene is a mess. It took me several minutes to figure out that it was “the present.” Beth is dying, Jo has returned home, and the opera turns out to be one big flashback in which Jo comes to grips with the course her life has taken. I hated it.

One last rant, and I’m done. When are contemporary composers going to learn that how you “voice” the characters in an opera goes a long way in predetermining it’s success and/or failure? Voice type delineates character. Several recent, highly-touted operas have been almost single-handedly ruined by bad “voicing.” In Picker’s An American Tragedy, all of the leading ladies sound the same (high, loud and hysterical), in Previn’s A Streetcar Names Desire, both leading ladies were high, lyric sopranos, and everyone knows Stanley should have been a tenor, and in Little Women there are too many mezzos! Jo is a mezzo. Meg is a mezzo. Alma Marsh is a mezzo. Cecilia Marsh is a mezzo. I mean, come on!

For those of you reading this review, I am in the minority. All the major critics loved this opera when it premiered. Opera News loved this DVD when it came out last month. But for this particular opera fan, it is not a Little Women I care to see or hear again any time soon.

  • armerjacquino

    ‘everyone knows Stanley should have been a tenor’

    Do we? I’d see that character as an obvious baritone part.

    • Will

      Agreed. Were he a tenor it would have to be a heldentenor, but a barihunk is what the part calls out for. The dark tone with the hint of power and menace behind everything he says is what’s important.

      • perfidia

        I agree, but what if the part had been written for Jonas Kaufmann?

        • armerjacquino

          Nah, we’ll save Jonas for when they make an opera of ‘Glass Menagerie’.

          We’d need to get Flicka back from retirement for Amanda, of course. Costello as the gentleman caller. But who to play Laura? A nice light lyric who can do ‘pathetic’?

          • Edward George

            Armer: They have. He has. Premiered in Trier, 1996 by Antonio Bibalo, Jonas played (as you imagined) Tom.

          • armerjacquino

            Good lord. I was just speculating. What a spooky coincidence.

    • Well, who knows? Marlon Brando was the creator of Stanley, and he was certainly a tenor.

      • armerjacquino

        Ha, the thought of Brando singing leads inevitably to the film of Guys and Dolls, a film it’s impossible to watch without thinking ‘YOU’VE CAST THEM THE WRONG WAY ROUND’.

    • ianw2

      Agreed. But I also would’ve done Blanche as a mezzo.

  • ianw2

    I’ve always found this piece a bit of a struggle because, as the review points out, the best music is given to a minor character (and a man in what should be a female-dominated score).

    But its always nice to see a contemporary opera have a rich and full life (which it certainly does on female-heavy campuses around the country), so hurrah for that.

  • M

    You know, Wendy, you have a perfect right to like or not like any piece you’re reviewing. But when you review something—particularly a new-ish opera in its DVD première— you do have an obligation to, you know, describe it. This essay is virtually content-free. Because you never thought of Little Women as a journey of Buddhist enlightenment, you say it doesn’t do the opera any good, despite an “occasionally brilliant” score. Details of said journey, score, or libretto—or problems therewith? No: instead, a sentence like this:

    “This wrong-headed notion about some “deeper theme” consistently robs the music, the story, and most importantly, the characters of their charm and humanity.”

    Because nothing robs people of their warmth and humanity than an emotional journey: which you concede Jo makes! But that is the extent of your description of the opera, other than free-floating opinion bombs like “What should be joyful is just frenetic, what should be funny or touching seems false and contrived. Even in a sure-fire, tear-jerk moment like Beth’s death scene, I was not particularly moved.”

    And the voicing criticism! The opera has four sisters, who sing important quartets: the eldest, the tomboyish second eldest, and the two younger girls. S/S/Mz/Mz is poor voicing in this case? Then you have their mother, and their aunt. They should sing in the same register as the youngest girls?

    Jesus, Cieca, you’ll let any clown write here.

    • ianw2

      Mark? Is that you? Are you back online?

  • Bluessweet

    Joyce DiDonato participated in a round table discussion with Maestro Christofer Macatsoris, AVA’s music director and Thor Eckert, who is, these days, coaching the AVA students in career development, yesterday (Sunday, February 27, 2011.) The topic was career development and aimed at the AVA students.

    My SO and I witnessed the dialog and spoke with Ms. DiDonato at the reception afterward. I can tell you that she does not merely “infuse” a part, as per our reviewer’s quote below. She PROJECTS it quite naturally. She is a shear delight to see and hear, on or off the stage, singing or speaking. Her opinions and advice to the students was inspiring to anyone, no matter what the endeavor. Boy we were glad to have been there!

    “ I thought Joyce DiDonato was singing Jo. That is not the case. Di Donato sings Meg, and she infuses the character with a warmth, beauty, charm and vocal grace that is a sheer delight.”

  • m. croche

    Buddhism was indeed a fascinating new vein of philosophy and culture for Transcendentalists and other New England intellectuals in the middle of the 19th century. Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau were all fascinated with the stuff and incorporated it into their work. Alcott’s father, the educator Bronson Alcott, made an American edition of Edwin Arnold’s “The Light of Asia, or The Great Renunciation, Being the Life and Teachings of Gautama, Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism” -- a work that subsequently went through 80 editions in the US and became a best-seller.

    There is a nice book on the subject, Rick Fields’ “How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America”. It’s not a rigorous piece of work, but it is a pleasant and informative read.

  • sidessa

    I think that it is not kind to suggest that Mark Adamo is snarking La Cieca under the soubriquet M. This may be Mark but he has every right to complain about someone posting a nasty review about his opera. I would ask for more kindness and compassion for someone who has felt the slings and arrows of cruel critics.

    • ianw2

      Is that you, John?

      He’s also cast his own share of slings and arrows, and he’s a big boy so I’m sure he can take it.

  • sidessa

    No, sidessa is not John C. I feel that Mark Adamo has taken too much criticism for his efforts. Lysistrata was savaged in the press and by the audiences who fled after the first act. The constant references to “the poor man’s Sondheim light” which dog his every performance of Little Women are cruel and un-called for. Adamo is a sincere composer who is giving his best efforts to the public and is what he is. He does not clain to be a great composer. His modest gifts are pleasing to some.

  • M

    I write as someone who worked at City Opera during Adamo’s term as composer-in-residence there, and thus, as someone who heard both Little Women and Lysistrata, (as I was tasked with following the fortunes of both pieces in the press.) So I confess to some bewilderment by this conversation. My objection to Wendy’s review was not that it was negative, but that it was so very badly written. (ianw2, I don’t think you have to be either Adamo or Corigliano to entertain that supposition. You just have to have read some good criticism now and again.) And sidessa: while I love your generosity, and your judgments are your own, how do you remember Lysistrata being “savaged in the press?” From Ross’s review? Or Steve Smith’s? Even Tommasini and Davis were down the middle: and, at NYCO, we never heard “Sondheim light,” but we happily used Rockwell’s rave in the Times. Love or hate these pieces as you like, but why make stuff up?

  • Wow, this is turning into the Act 2 finale of Maria Stuarda!

    • operalover9001

      “vil bastarda!”

  • funiculifunicula

    I have met Adamo and worked with him on a production of Little Women.

    I think this review is pretty unfairly harsh.

    Seriously, criticizing the choice of voices?

    There’s either sop or mezzo to choose from, that’s it.

    But you have the youngest Amy as a high flighty sop, the next Beth as a lyric, Meg as a lyric high mezzo, and Jo as a slightly more dramatic mezzo; all those fioratura passages.

    Then a motherly-mezzo for the mother, and a fantastically written “crotchety-mezzo/contralto” voice for the Aunt.

    What on EARTH is wrong with that???? It makes perfect sense.

    The reviewer would absolutely HATE to know that in the score, Mark suggests the Bass-Baritone role of Friedrich Baer can also be sung by a Mezzo as a trouser role -- his attempt to acknowledge the possibility of Jo’s homosexuality. I have often wondered if anyone has ever performed it that way -- he thought it unlikely!

    Giving the opera a “deeper theme…” well, there needs to be some dramatic impetus to the work, doesn’t there, or else, lets face it, Little Women is a pretty bland and twee sentimental story.

    I’m surprised the review found Beth’s death aria un-moving; I have from the first day I heard it regarded it as a particularly fine and touching piece. But each to their own.

  • sidessa

    I am defending Adamo from what I consider to be unfrair criticism. Count the tenors in certain Rossini operas and you’ll come to six. To judge him for writing too many mezzo roles is foolish. Perhaps he felt that the text could be understood better in a lower tessitura and was being generous to his audience.