Operatic versions of famous novels and plays are much like their cinematic cousins: Some lend new insight and dimension to the original, others stress one aspect of the story at the expense of others, and a few reaffirm predictions that nothing could beat the book. Mark Adamo's Little Women, playing at the Central City Opera House, illustrates all of these ideas, though with some unusual twists. Some of the supporting roles in the American composer's libretto, which he adapted from Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel, are more fully realized than the leading character. And the story's theme -- things change -- gets hammered home so often (and is accompanied by the same handful of portentous notes) that it nearly becomes a torturous oxymoron.
Most important, don't wait to be swept away by a tidal wave of operatic passion; as one patron aptly remarked while leaving the theater, "It isn't that kind of story." Narrated by the leading character, Jo, the memory tale ebbs and flows, intermittently touching on feelings of family and childhood remembrances. At times, though, the mood turns strangely lacerating as Jo, overtaken by her memories of certain events, twitches, lurches about, bugs out her eyes and then, just as quickly, settles down for the next scene.
Apart from Jo's bizarre emotional eruptions, the impressions that linger longest are of the many robust performances, the precise orchestral playing (CCO's music administrator, John Baril, conducts), a show-stopping aria and a final, soaring quartet that epitomizes the emotional struggles of four women bound by blood, divided by desire and reconciled by their common past. Some of the music verges on the tuneful, while other passages jump about in twelve-tone-like fury. Nearly all of the lyrics, which are sung in English, are projected in green computerized letters onto a small overhead screen of the variety used in banks to remind people to make timely deposits to their Christmas Club accounts. The infernal device proves distracting, but it occasionally helps to clarify wayward or garbled words.
Despite her character's extreme mood swings, Stacey Rishoi delivers a fine portrayal of Jo, the unhappy child who can't seem to let go of her past or, it seems, her desire to control her sisters' destinies. In many ways, the role is a thankless one, full of difficult modulations and transitions that Rishoi handles as best she can. She's also on stage for most of the two-and-a-half-hour opera, which makes her task all the more challenging. Ultimately, it's difficult to feel for her, not so much because of how Rishoi interprets the role (though director Joshua S. Major would do well to curtail some of her high-energy moments), but because her character, like most of the others, rarely transcends her immediate circumstances. Instead, Jo worries, frets and schemes over everyday occurrences -- hardly the sort of behavior that engenders heroic action or consequence, which are needed if the audience is to forge an emotional bond with her.
Now and then, episodes of high feeling manage to rise above the bromidic clouds, and when they do, the effects are mighty. As Professor Friedrich Baer, Chen-Ye Yuan deservedly earns the evening's longest round of applause for his rendition of an aria based on a Goethe poem. The talented singer barely moves a muscle as he enthralls Jo -- and us -- with his sublimely realized description of "a gentle wind from bluest heaven." Although the circumstances of her big moment are less hopeful than the good professor's, Tina Millhorn, as sickly sister Beth, lends strength and authority to her character's farewell song. Chad Shelton is appealing as Laurie, Jo's would-be suitor, as is Daniel Belcher as Brooke, the braggart who wins the heart of Meg, beautifully sung by Jane Dutton. And Courtenay Budd, Jan Opalach, Katherine Ciesinski and Gwendolyn Jones all turn in solid performances as members of the March clan.
In the end, the message about enduring family values resonates, and the clean staging does justice to the piece, which premiered at the Opera Studio of Houston Grand Opera in 1998 and was given a mainstage revival two seasons later. The CCO production is only the fifth to be presented nationwide, which means that locals have a chance to see a new work before most of the rest of the country (Little Women will be telecast on PBS's Great Performances this fall).
By the time the story draws to a close, however, one wonders whether the staid tale was deserving of operatic treatment in the first place.
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