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Little Women, Big Voices

Orange County
Irvine Barclay Theatre
05/20/2001 -  
Mark Adamo: Little Women
Kirsten Chavez (Jo), Stephanie Woodling (Meg), Christina Suh (Amy), Natalie Taormina (Beth)
Opera Pacific Orchestra and Chorus
Christopher Larkin (conductor)

Although there is little danger of confusing Mark Adamo’s 1998 Little Women with Parsifal, the subject matter of ruminations on the natures of the temporal, the spiritual and the mortal are eerily similar. The opera’s devices of time travel and physical levels of reality cause one to think about Wagner working the crank on that Bayreuth revolving stage which he himself invented. Perhaps it is the New England setting, but the theatrical work which this fine new venture most completely invokes is Carousel, a merry-go-round horse prominently displayed throughout the proceedings. Alcott’s original attic was cluttered with symbols and Adamo perceptively fashions his text around the possibilities inherent in the process of creation. Each of the four sisters has her own existence suspended in the kingdom of the what if: Jo’s novel, Meg’s practicing of her acceptance speech in the event of her being the object of a marriage proposal (cf. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s journey into the subjunctive in If I Loved You), Amy’s drawing, Beth’s unfinished hymn as an emblem of her biological fragility. Dramatically, this surprisingly coherent piece is first rate; musically, however, it is predictably unadventurous.

What saves the evening is the exceptional performance of Opera Pacific. The four sisters are portrayed by a dazzlingly talented quartet of young singers. Kirsten Chavez gives a more than creditable performance as Jo, an unforgiving role which requires her to be onstage virtually throughout the entire evening. When not a direct part of the action, Ms. Chavez is perched above the fray in the attic, reinforcing the image that all of the events are being played out either in her memory, or perhaps more disturbingly, in her lurid novelist’s fantasy. Ms. Chavez’ acting was a bit over the top at times, but she certainly stood up to the demands of the composer (without the encumbrance of good melody, Adamo feels free to push the envelope of recitative). Christina Suh, in the relatively small part of Amy, has a spectacular instrument, a sweetly lyrical soprano which caused me to sit up and take notice in her disappointingly few solo passages. Natalie Taormina as Beth gets the big death scene (Adamo’s You’ll Never Walk Alone) and she plays it for all that it is worth. Her controlled intensity, both dramatic and musical, caused several audience members to weep openly (when was the last time you saw that at the Metropolitan Opera?).

Stephanie Woodling’s Meg was particularly impressive. Possessing a fine voice with a secure lower register, this mezzo brought the action to its center around herself by sheer force of personality and artistry (it is Meg’s marriage which is the focal point of Act I and the catalyst for the raveling of the precious family unit). Her explorations of the nether regions of her tessitura (interestingly enough, both Jo and Meg are mezzi) in the aria “Things change, Jo” was the highlight of the performance and produced the most sustained ovation from the audience. I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Woodling’s Isolier in a production of Le Comte Ory in New York a couple of years ago. I predicted a bright future for her at that time; it is gratifying to see that it is actually happening for her. Of the men, the finest voice was that of Andrew Fernando, his singing of a lied from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister the highlight of Act II. The orchestra under Christopher Larkin was excellent.

Mr. Adamo is the composer in residence at New York’s City Opera. It must be great for him to be able to hear his work performed so well in a more intimate setting. At least in Orange County, he doesn’t have to deal with that dreadful amplification system.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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