Opera Holland Park 2022 Review: Little Women
A Terrific Cast Elevates Adamo’s Popular WorkBy Mike Hardy
The UK Premiere of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” was a tad late getting underway. The almost capacity audience at Opera Park Holland needing to be reminded three times to take their seats in order for the performance to commence.
Not that Mr. Adamo himself, present at the event in the 5th row back, would have minded much; given that he has had to wait 24 YEARS to get his most famous and, (in the US at least), prolific work staged here, despite it having been performed in more than 70 national and international engagements since its 1998 première by Houston Grand Opera.
Based on that most famous of American works of the same name by Louisa May Alcott, the book has seen many adaptations for stage, film, television and now, thanks to Mr Adamo, an opera in two acts.
Written in English, in rhymed couplets, it tells the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in civil-war era New England. It is, principally, a story about change, the characters adapting to it and the passage of time. It is a story about innocence, childhood, and maturing. It is the story of life.
WHY, precisely, it took 24 years to reach these shores is difficult to state with any degree of accuracy. When I asked Adamo himself this question, in a brief meeting on the opening night, he merely shrugged and said, “I’ve been trying!”
Perhaps, given that the semi-autobiographical book is an American, evergreen coming of age novel, it wasn’t deemed suitably attractive enough to make the cultural transition across the pond.
The story is actually cleverly told, employing the use of four giant, rustic picture frames to represent various snapshots throughout the lives, loves and interactions of the sisters, as well as the front of stage writing desk which served as Jo’s pulpit in her narrations, all courtesy of some clever and inspired designs by Madeleine Boyd, whose set here was actually modified from, and actually doubles in, another opera.
These stations subsequently served as frequent sub-plots throughout the opera, with Jo narrating or interpolating from the front. This was well augmented with some simple, yet effective lighting by Rory Beaton which served to accentuate key points along the story, illuminating, in turn, each picture frame station.
Director Ella Marchment creates some wonderful enhancements to the libretto by judicious use of humor and comic acting, particularly between Jo, whose wonderful wit is never far away in any scene, particularly when with Laurie, her lifelong friend and admirer.
Marchment’s real triumph here, though, is the (initially) confusing but ultimately inspirational utilizing of what the cast list describes as a “Quartet of female voices.” Originally written to be additional offstage voices, in this production the additional four characters transpire to be a kind of spiritual incarnation of the March sisters, projected onto the present day. These girls, each stationed in one of the picture frame sets and seemingly colour coded to match their respective sister, were engaged in, (mostly), latter day, benign activities. They were, rather quizzically, positioned at these stations some time before the commencement of the opera, but once what they represent becomes apparent, it makes for a brilliant, dramaturgical concept.
The problem MUSICALLY with contemporary opera, for me at least, is that it invariably tends to sway towards the radical in terms of its structure, staying well clear of the well-established methods of melodiousness and Leitmotivs employed by the revered composers of old. This frequently, however, equates to atonality and dissonance in the music, and so it was the case here, in parts. The first act, especially, struck me as being somewhat discordant at times, almost experimental. Despite the whole score being peppered with frequent bows to Richard Rogers, Sondheim and even Lloyd-Webber, (at least to MY ear), it was never for long enough to truly engage, musically. In fact, I marveled at conductor Sian Edwards ability to navigate the orchestra so expertly around this potpourri of styles, who performed admirably, with gusto.
And yet…..this was, indeed an opera of two halves. In the SECOND act, Adamo’s score seemed to find some cohesion which produced, firstly, a delightful multi-level interaction of the characters in an ensemble where Jo, now based in New York, exchanges letters with her family, urging them to “write soon.” Later, she meets her admirer, German professor Friedrich Bhaer who sings a most stirring and impassioned “Kennst du das Land,” from Goethe’s poem, one of the most melodic parts of the whole opera.
This, in turn, gives way to the most heart-rending of scenes when Jo is recalled home to comfort an ailing Beth. “Have peace, Jo” she sings, in an unequivocally moving aria that ends with Beth expiring, allowing her clutched teddy bear to drop to the floor, redolent of the manner of Mimi dropping her muff in Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’.
The near-finale involving all four sisters singing in four-part harmony, a reminiscence of what they were and an affirmation of what they become, is both joyous and pleasantly fulfilling.
This is a magical and gifted cast, and I was left wanting more from a score that afforded too little opportunity for the participants to truly shine, individually.
Leading the Way
Mezzo Soprano Charlotte Badham, in her professional debut, gets to play the pivotal Jo, the hinge pin for the whole story. She both sings and acts with confidence and assuredness. She portrays Jo as almost world-weary, infusing her character with feistiness, wit, and comedic inflections as she strives to maintain the status quo and avoid the inevitable changes and progress taking place around her. Her interactions with Beth on her deathbed are most moving, and with Bhaer in the final scene, where she, ostensibly, finally alludes to romantic companionship, most touching.
Beth, played here by Harriet Eyley, sings with a most thrilling vocal intensity, her piercing soprano enveloping the whole arena with emotive poignancy during her tragic scenes. Her sublime death bed scene made all the more remarkable and impactive by virtue of her otherwise reticence, seated behind the piano in contemplative pose for much of the opera.
Mezzo Soprano Kitty Whately gets to sink her teeth into the role of Meg and does so with much aplomb. She sings with beautifully clear diction and with wonderful, creamy richness. Her delivery of ‘Things change, Jo,” in the second act, was both enthralling and compelling where she pleads her right to marry, against Jo’s wishes.
Soprano Elizabeth Karani completes the quartet of sisters in the role of Amy. She sings with sure phrasing and exudes star quality and presence. Her delivery of “Joy beyond measure, Mother”, alongside her love interest, Laurie, where she radiates ectasy on learning that her love is requited, is genuinely heartfelt and moving. Her utterance of the passage, “For I am loved. I am loved”, is quite breath-taking in its execution, her shrill, resonant crescendo, utterly captivating. Again, I would love to have heard more of her in isolation, over and beyond her fine contributions to the quartets.
Laurie is here played by Frederick Jones. His piercing tenor is sung with a bright, polished ping, displaying fine squillo in the upper register. Moreover, he acts with confidence, his performance here enhanced with a touch of comedic clumsiness and social awkwardness that reminded me a little of Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. His impassioned pleas to Jo in act 1, to be his wife, are both humorous and touching. Again, I was longing to hear more of this voice, perhaps tackling something more melodic, with more legato.
Shaking Things Up
And then, out of nowhere, Benson Wilson gets to shake this whole show up in Act two. His Professor Friedrich Bhaer who happens to live across the hall from Jo, in New York, gets to recite poetry by Goethe, singing, first in German and then English, with a gorgeously rich, seductive, and elegant baritone that elevates the whole score and creates, for me, this opera’s pinnacle. Wilson’s imposing stature and certitude lend much weight to his stage presence. His phrasing and remarkably well controlled sotto voce on the line “I dream, we would go” is simply divine.
John Brooke, suitor to Meg, is played by Harry Thatcher. A capable baritone, Thatcher brings a child-like eagerness to his character in his affections and subsequent marriage to Meg.
Cecilia March; the girls wealthy Aunt, is played by hugely accomplished Mezzo Soprano Lucy Schaufer who brings a comically haughty, yet compassionate feel to the role in her desires to control the girls and their destinies.
The March sisters parents, Alma and Gideon Marsh, are played by Victoria Simmonds and Nicholas Garrett, respectively. Though maintaining a tangible presence throughout, their musical contribution is superficial.
Likewise, the Quartet of female voices, Beth Moxon, Naomi Rogers, Daniella Sicari & Christine Byrne, all competent Mezzos/sopranos, have such insignificant roles, vocally, offering only frugal accompaniment at the beginning and end, yet do so much by way of embodying the spiritual incarnations or ‘ghosts’ of the sisters throughout the opera.
What Louise May Alcott would have made of this adaptation? Who can say? Certainly, music featured in her life and that of her sisters. In the 1994 FILM adaptation, Jo is wooed by the love duet from Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers.” Although historically inaccurate, the scene undoubtedly helped cement the movie’s three Academy Award nominations.
This work is far removed from the verismo style and romantic era productions of Alcott’s lifetime, but I can’t help feeling that she would have been quietly pleased with Adamo’s rendition of the key components from her book.