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Mark Adamo: Little Women
Stephanie Novacek (Jo), Chad Shelton (Laurie), Margaret Lloyd (Amy), Stacey Tappan (Beth), Joyce DiDonato (Meg), Gewndolyn Jones (Alma March), Daniel Belcher (John Brooke), James Maddalena (Gideon March), Katherine Ciesinski (Cecilia March), Derrick Parker (Mr. Dashwood), Chen-Ye Yuan (Friedrich Bhaer), Jessica Jones, Marie Lenormand, Kathleen M. Manley, Kerri Marcinko (Four Voices), Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Patrick Summers (Conductor), Christopher McCollum (Set Designer), Melissa Graff (Costume Designer), David M. Plevan (Lighting Designer), Peter Webster (Stage Production Director), Brian Large (Television Production Director)
Recorded at Cullen theater, Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas (17-18 March 2000) – 114'53
Naxos 2.110613 – Booklet in English

The impressive success of Little Women, Mark Adamo's first opera, speaks to the work's dramatic effectiveness as well as many moments of engaging and touching music. While the story is a bit cloying and makes some seemingly arbitrary alterations to Louisa May Alcott's original conception, overall it works well on the opera stage.

Adamo's music is listener friendly. Even the "twelve tones of the horn melody in the Prologue" do nothing to upset the ear (one can't help but be reminded of Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw theme), and the composer is mostly successful in his attempt to clarify the plot of the opera by creating "two scores: a character music…in bold relief against a narrative music." Many listeners will be satisfied with Adamo's chosen harmonic language and the opera's "pretty" vocal lines and decorative instrumental effects, while others will long for the heyday of Houston Grand Opera's commissions, when the music challenged and looked forward rather than sat with satisfaction in its own comfort zone. I, for one, couldn't help wondering what James Maddelena, who sang the title role at HGO in the world premiere of John Adam's Nixon in China (a truly important milestone in operatic history) in 1987, thinks of his role in the present work.

Adamo has a wonderful ear for color, and there are some stunning sounds drawn from a rather small orchestral complement (wonderfully led, as is always expected, by Patrick Summers). If anything, his penchant for "clever" orchestral effects at times crowd the musical space, and there are many moments when the intensity would likely be heightened by a more static orchestral palette rather than one that is almost always sketched in Technicolor. Likewise, his insistence on a rhyming libretto at times creates clumsy and sometimes cheesy word choices. This is all outweighed by his uncanny ability to flatter the voices at his disposal. The lines are often extremely disjunct, but every singer in the cast handles them masterfully, and throughout the work the vocal writing flows organically and complements the text.

HGO always brings together the strongest possible cast for its commissioned works, and this is no exception. It is no surprise that Joyce DiDonato, who was on the verge of a stunning international career at the time of this premiere, stands out. Her portrayal of Meg is vocally perfect, her acting ability is spot-on. If nothing else, this DVD is a vivid portrait of a star truly being born. DiDonato is well matched by Daniel Belcher's portrayal of John Brooke, making the second scene of the opera arguably the strongest. DiDonato's development from a dominant personality to one struggling uphill against constant disappointment is achingly portrayed by DiDonato and magnified by the camera closeups.

The other three sisters are effectively sketched by Adamo and well sung by the cast. It may sound churlish, but Adamo's amplification of the pitiful Beth gets a bit tiresome and perhaps lessens the impact of her death in the second act. Stacey Tappan does her best with the role, always producing a lovely, vulnerable sound. Margaret Lloyd is delightfully sassy as Amy and Stephanie Novacek navigates Jo, perhaps the score's most difficult role, with unmitigated success. At times, these three sound a bit too similar in vocal timbre, which may be more noticeable on recording than in live performance. One is reminded of how distinctive individual voices can be whenever Ms. DiDonato sings and, perhaps even more so, by Katherine Ciesinki's venomous portrayal of Cecilia March, with her extravagantly rich voice on fine display.

The costumes and sets are finely detailed but seem tailor made for viewing from afar. On this DVD, the constant closeness of the camera makes the proceedings seem more like a soap opera with an operatic cast. One misses the perspective of the opera house, where our gaze isn't forced upon one character or the other and we can immerse our imaginations in any aspect of the production at any time. The sound production is also consistently very close and sounds a bit artificially separated in ensemble numbers. Picture quality throughout is outstanding (I watched on regular DVD; the recording is also available on Blu-Ray), and the tracking on the DVD provides ample points of reference. Adamo's writing in the synopsis and explanation of his inspiration for the opera verges on the brink of disingenuousness, especially in his constant insistence that the characters on stage are supposed to react to something the orchestra is doing, as if they need the prompting and cannot have normal human reactions on their own.

All in all, this is certainly a fine documentation of what has turned out to be one of the most popular and successful operas of the last decade, but it certainly doesn't replace the live experience. Fortunately, with a steady stream of engagements around the world, that experience is not too difficult to come by.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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