Fifty opera companies have performed Mark Adamo’s Little Women in its first decade of existence. When a work of musical drama becomes an instant success, my reaction is wary. Is the composer superficial? Has he pandered to public taste? Is the composition facile? These questions were uppermost in my mind when I attended the dress rehearsal of Brevard Music Center’s production of the opera. I had heard several of the arias, but this was my first hearing of the entire work. I won’t keep you in suspense: it deserves all the praise and recognition it has received.
Adamo has taken the Louisa May Alcott novel, removed unnecessary complexity about the March sisters’ club, eliminated any mention of the Civil War, and added biographical detail about the Alcott parents in order to flesh out the characters of the March parents. The result is a total focus on the March family relationships and a central theme of accepting the passage of time and the changes that time brings.
Dare I say the two names Mark Adamo and Richard Wagner in the same paragraph? I think so, if I point out differences as well as similarities. The differences are obvious. Adamo’s musical vocabulary is late-twentieth-century incorporating twelve-tone theory and minimalism side-by-side with cluster chords and chorale writing, whereas Wagner’s vocabulary was mid-nineteenth-century high romanticism. Adamo writes economically rather than expansively. (Little Women is about the length of one act by Wagner.) Adamo is pragmatic in his orchestration. (The pit orchestra used 27 players, whereas Die Walküre calls for over 100 players including eight horns and six harps.) But the similarities between the two operatic composers seem to me to be equally obvious. Adamo uses repeated motifs, as did Wagner. By the end of Act One, the audience has been exposed to all the musical material, which will then be manipulated and reorganized in Act Two. Adamo writes his own libretti, as did Wagner. Adamo manages, as did Wagner, to unify the words, the music, the stage action and the emotion into a carefully crafted Gesamstkunstwerk (“integrated artwork”).
Christopher Larkin, who conducted the world premiere of Little Women with the Houston Opera Studio in 1998, ably conducted the BMC performance, which was directed by David Gately. Guest artist Laura Mercado sang the mezzo-soprano lead role of Jo in a nuanced professional manner. Her early aria “Perfect as it was” set the standard for later solo works by other members of the cast. In the lead tenor role of Laurie, BMC student Mark Rysdon showed a fine resonant tone and dramatic consistency, not easy in a role laden with ambivalent emotions. Deserving notice for their dramatic presence were mezzo-soprano Catharin Carew and bass Matt Moeller as the parents Alma and Gideon March. They were moving in the marriage-vow duet “Ours the hours.” Mezzo-soprano Liliana Piazza was dynamite as Aunt Cecilia. Her late duet with Mercado “You alone, a mansion of stone” was another high point.
Including these five singers, the entire cast had an average age of 25. While some other singers were dramatically not as compelling as those mentioned above, their vocal skills were consistently good. That they handled so well vocal material with many difficult interval leaps is a tribute both to their preparation and to the fact that Adamo’s vocal writing makes the leaps appropriate and natural to the text. Beth’s deathbed aria “Have peace, Jo” was touching. Will Liverman was in fine voice as the impoverished tutor professing his love for Meg. Kevin Doherty, as Professor Bhaer, received audience acclaim for the aria “Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom?” The Goethe text is delivered once as German lieder and then repeated in an English translation.
“Things change, Jo” is an aria delivered by Meg and a message rejected by Jo in Act One. In the late stages of Act Two, Jo recognizes the inevitable progression of time. In a reprise of the aria, she sings “Things change, Amy.” Adamo’s libretto then delivers a truth of which we need to be frequently reminded:
“People change; you cannot change them.
Things stay as you arrange them.”
Jo closes the trunks in the attic, locking away the things of her life. Professor Bhaer unexpectedly shows up to lead Jo into a future filled with humanity. And this brilliant opera concludes. The BMC production will be staged again Saturday evening, August 2, at 7:30 pm. See http://www.cvnc.org/calendar/series/beyond/BMC.html.