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Our Venomous Obsession

New York
Dicapo Theatre, 182 East 76th Street
09/11/2008 -  & Sept. 12, 13, 14
Robert Ward: The Crucible
Zeffin Quinn Hollis (John Proctor), Lisa Chavez (Elisabeth Proctor), Cecilia Whitney (Betty), David Gagnon (Reverend Samuel Parris), Marie-Adeline Henry (Abigail), Nicole Farbes-Lyons (Tituba), Jennifer Valle (Ann Putnam), Gary Giardina (Thomas Putnam), Katherine Keyes (Rebecca Nurse), Steven Fredericks (Francis Nurse), Giles Corey (Willy Falk), Michael Bracegirdle (Judge Danforth), Matthew Lau (Reverend John Hale), Lynne Abeles (Mary Warren), Michael Boley (Ezekiel Cheever), Jessica Tivens (Sarah Good), Allison Leaheey (Ruth Putnam), Sara Petrocelli (Susanna Walcott), Shannon Capogreco (Mercy Lewis), Molly Mustonen (Martha Sheldon), Bethany Argiro (Bridget Booth)
The Dicapo Theatre Orchestra, Pacien Mazzagatti (Conductor)
Robert Alfoldi (Director), John Farrell (Set Design), Sandor Daróczi (Costume Design), Susan Roth (Lighting Design), Francine Harman (Choreography), Robert Westley (Fight Director)

L. Chavez, Z. Quinn Hollis, L. Abeles, M.-A. Henry
(© James Martindale)

Like the 17-year-cicada, which hibernates for 16 years and then rises to destroy, the environment which fed it, cyclical American witch-hunts have practically become an American obsession. It started, yes, with the Salem witch-hunts of 1692, continued when British Loyalists were hung after the American Revolution, then the Know-Nothings of the 1840’s routing "Papists" and continues to this day. The Ku Klux Klan lynched "uppity" Blacks, the 1920’s and 1950’s anti-Red movements tried to destroy "un-Americans", the Government sponsored the 1941 incarcerations of Americans of Japanese descent….

And finally-though we don’t wish to be reminded of our Nine-Eleven inquisition-our latest cyclical witch-hunt concentrated on Moslems, culminating in a famous American preacher, Franklyn Graham, proclaiming that "The Koran is the book of the Devil."

Arthur Miller took the original Salem witch-hunts, pared down the original detailed testimony considerably, and gave the play as a metaphor for the McCarthy trials. When librettist Bernard Stambler pared down Miller’s rather unwieldy play (hardly his best), it was the perfect vehicle for young composer Robert Ward, who won a 1962 Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for the opera.

Ward is still alive and thriving, and while an air delay precluded his appearance at the Dicapo production last night, the 91-year-old composer might have taken great delight in this, his only real operatic success.

The opera itself does not exactly show its age. It came out during the American counter-reaction to European experimentalism, in the same mode as Susannah and Baby Doe, and Tender Land, but without anything near the panache and perfect dramatic skill of Menotti at his best.

Yet Dicapo Opera, one of New York’s three full-time opera companies, is known for its stylish, if not grandiose productions, and The Crucible possessed all the tension, passion and lyrical singing which the opera deserved.

Yes, the play is still unwieldy, and the witch accusations and counter-accusations of the first two acts can become wearying as drama. As music, though, Robert Ward did not let a single measure go by without stress and lines which borders on the hysterical.

Acts 3 and 4 (wisely put together here) are more immediate. The first scene is an actual duet-yes a manic duet-between the wicked passionate Abigail (what a shame Callas never did American opera!) and her one-time one-shot lover, John Proctor, the hero. The second scene is in a courtyard, where bile, savagery, meanness and Savonarole-like inquisition is in front. The last act has a resolution of integrity over expediency, but Ward has set moments when John Proctor refuses to sign his "confession" with heart-rending music.

The production design by John Farrell at Dicapo are minimal but stark. Three of the acts are dominated by a square, on a platform, with several pits into which the actors can jump, fall or simply reside in. Twice, characters come through the audience, the lighting is blaring or dark, but changes constantly with the music.

Appropriately too, nearly all the actors-with the exception of the African woman Tituba and the Proctor couple--are in scary whiteface, with all black robes. The movements are sudden, alarming at times, but with the noted Hungarian director Robert Alfoldi, always in line with the heavy drama.

The result is-as one usher whispered to me as I entered-"almost unbearably moving." Actually, it was bearable but never boring, if a bit confusing. But as an ensemble work with a huge cast, the singing is as effective as possible. Not a single "hit" aria, as in Susannah is here, but Ward wrote enough set pieces for the voices to do their best. Yet so good were they that not a single voice stood out.

The two central "good" figures, the Proctors, are played with emotional conviction by Quinn Hollis and Lisa Chavez. More difficult is the wicked, lecherous, almost catatonic Abigail by Marie-Adeline Henry. Judge Danforth (a melding of several judges in Miller’s original) is a pasty-faced malicious character along with the two ministers. By the third act, this Axis of Sanctimonious Evil, played by Michael Bracegirdle. David Gagnon, and Matthew Lau, prove as dramatically obsessive as their voices will allow.

The cast is too large to name each. But almost every one has a chance to not only sing but shake with madness, wriggle across the stage, and appear to have the devil behind them. The schoolgirls who had started the whole thing, spend most of their time in a pit, but when they come out, the effect is as horrifying as any young false accusers in present-day pederasty trials.

In other words, The Crucible does work here. This is neither grand nor chamber opera. Its dimensions, though, sliced from the original testimony to play to music, possess an energy, a decent (if spare) orchestral accompaniment, and singing which catches the fatality of our poisonous American obsession.

Harry Rolnick



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