The Piedmont Opera continues its stellar trajectory with its current production of Robert Ward’s The Crucible, based on the play of the same name by Arthur Miller. One of the most frequently performed American operas, The Crucible earned its composer, Robert Ward, a Pulitzer Prize in music in 1962. The plot revolves around the 1692 witchcraft trials in Salem, Massachusetts and uses historically authentic events and characters with a fictitious sub-plot (invented by Arthur Miller) creating a love interest between the protagonist, John Procter and the young orphan, Abigail Williams, the principal witch, but whose confession spares her from hanging.

Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Piedmont Opera and of the A.J. Fletcher Institute, James Allbritten led members of the Winston-Salem Symphony in this moving performance. There was mastery in his handling of the music and wisdom in his casting. Bravo!

The singing was also outstanding, starting with the three principal roles: the seductive soprano of Kristin Schwecke (Abigail Williams), the warm expressive baritone of Philip Zawisza (John Proctor), and the surprisingly powerful mezzo-soprano voice of Janine Hawley as Elizabeth Proctor, the stoic long-suffering and sickly wife whose contradiction of her husband’s “lechery” invalidates his confession and condemns them both to the gallows.

The opera opens with Tituba, the slave from Barbados, sung by mezzo-soprano Nicole Mitchell, dismissed by the Reverent Parris (tenor Jonathon Sidden), who is concerned by the strange illness of his daughter, Betty (Stephanie Norman). Enter Betty’s cousin, Abigail, who sings a long duet with her uncle, he complaining of his enemies and she, of being dismissed from the service of the Proctors. Composer Ward has set much of the scene in a lilting 7/8 meter, although when the same meter is used for a knelt psalm, it hints at insincerity and hypocrisy.

Baritone Ted Federle is convincing as the scheming Thomas Putnam, and Amanda Moody, as his wife Ann, who benefit by acquiring the land of those condemned of witchcraft. Mezzo-soprano Mary Siebert makes an excellent counterpart as the righteous and honest Rebecca Nurse, a mother and grandmother and a believer that children will play their games and tricks and that adults must just be patient! But her refusal to admit this as witchcraft leads to her own condemnation. Tituba (Nicole Mitchell) sings an exotic aria admitting to her conversations with the devil and her games with the young ladies.

The Reverend John Hale seems to be the figure of authority and takes charge of events until the arrival in Act III of Judge Danforth. The powerful voice and presence of bass Richard Ollarsaba as Reverend Hale are impressive, although as the voice of reason in the third act, he becomes ineffective.

The second act is an introspection of the characters of John Proctor and his wife and gives us some of the best music of the evening. Ms. Hawley’s aria describing the solitude of having been betrayed is one of the musical highlights of the opera. And Mr. Zawisza’s response was a chromatic “slide into our own hole of Hell.” Mary Warren (well sung by the interesting mezzo-soprano voice of Kate Farrar), the new servant in the Proctor household, is reprimanded for spending so much time off the farm, in company of Abigail Williams, attending the witchcraft hearings in Salem.

Ward’s lush orchestration opens the first scene of Act III, set in a forest where Abigail tries to seduce anew the resistant John Proctor. The scorned young lady then warns him that the fate of his wife Elizabeth is entirely in his own hands.

A crucible is a melting pot, a container wherein all elements come together under high heat. The high heat of this opera comes in Scene 2 of Act III and introduces, in a mock-divine chorale-like hymn, the honorable Judge Danforth (tenor Todd Geer). Much has been made of The Crucible as an allegory for the McCarthy hearings on Un-American Activities and the accusations of affiliation with the Communist Party. Arthur Miller himself was convicted of Contempt of Congress in 1957 for refusing to name suspected communist sympathizers, but the conviction was overturned in 1958.

Nowhere is this allegory more evident than in this scene, also a hearing. Accusations are rampant and drama is high. And the conclusion is inevitable. Yet… had any of the accused confessed, they would have been pardoned. Only by maintaining one’s innocence did one earn the trip to the gallows.

Act IV features the cameo appearance of Marilyn Taylor in the role of the imprisoned Mary Good. Her duet with Nicole Mitchell (Tituba) was amusing, yet warm and touching.

This is one the best casts this reviewer has heard at the Piedmont Opera. Many of the voices are fellows or former fellows at the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which offers performance-based training at the graduate and post-graduate levels to several institute fellows each year.

Earlier events elucidating the circumstances leading up to the writing of Miller’s Crucible and Ward’s opera included a round table held on the UNCSA campus on Tuesday, March 6th featuring Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Robert Paul Kolt, who has written extensively about Robert Ward, and Robert Ward, himself. Ward was in good form and answered many questions about the opera, while Kolt situated the circumstances and Robinson spoke of the politics of the time, and the witchcraft of today: “shariah law.” Referring to present-day politics, he drew a laugh with “Politics today are… so operatic!”

There are repeat performances on Sunday, March 18 at 2 p.m. and Tuesday, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidebar. And note that The Crucible (the play, that is) is being presented by the Raleigh Little Theatre in April; for details, see CVNC‘s calendar listing.