“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.