What happens when a man is forced to choose between the well-being of his children and the sanctity of his good name? Should John Proctor, the main character in Robert Ward's opera The Crucible, preserve his sons' inheritance by bending to the stiff-necked morality of Salem's witch-hunters? Or should the condemned Puritan farmer defend to the death his integrity and the right to think for himself, regardless of the consequences for both family and fortune?

Such is the moral quandary that lies at the center of Ward's musical masterpiece--based upon the play by Arthur Miller--about the 1692 Salem witch trials. The opera earned Ward a Pulitzer Prize in 1962, which, in addition to supplying numerologists with a fresh harvest of doomsday grist, served as no small measure of vindication for the American artists whose personal and professional lives were destroyed by Fifties McCarthyism.

Michael Ehrman's compelling production of The Crucible is Central City Opera's third offering in its sublime American series, which began two seasons ago with Ehrman's acclaimed version of The Ballad of Baby Doe and continued last summer with his mesmerizing Susannah. Acutely aware that Ward's opera contains more elements of tragic implication and sweep than it does of tragic proportion and depth, Ehrman has chosen to emphasize the story's episodes of poignant feeling while downplaying several scenes of arch melodrama. It's a tightly focused approach that's marvelously underscored by the virtuosic conducting of artistic director John Moriarty, whose sinewy orchestra plays Ward's hymn-like choruses and folk melodies with robust precision. As a result, the two-and-three-quarter-hour evening (which is somewhat drawn out by three intermissions that accommodate several set changes) becomes a lyrical ode to emancipated belief instead of a grim sermon about mob rule.

The outstanding cadre of singers are led by three performers who do splendid justice to Ward's eclectic score. New York City Opera veteran Grant Youngblood's resonant baritone resounds with a valiant honor that's tempered with wounded pride in his portrayal of John Proctor, the free thinker who responds to his wife's cold touch by racing into the arms of a younger woman. From his first bitter remark to his mate ("You forgive nothing") to his final, gut-wrenching plea before the town magistrate ("How can I teach my sons to walk like men?"), Youngblood invests Proctor with a simple, intuitive rectitude that is his only defense against a crusading, intolerant society.

Youngblood's portrayal is perfectly matched in both emotional and vocal intensity by mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson's spellbinding rendering of Proctor's wife. Wronged though Elizabeth is, Jepson's beautifully sung portrait nonetheless bespeaks a steadfast woman whose loyalty and love permit her to overcome the pain of her husband's betrayal. And as the misguided, teenaged Abigail, whose specious accusations result in the hanging deaths of nineteen Salem citizens (plus one unlucky fellow who draws the supernatural short straw and is sentenced to be pressed to death with huge stones), soprano Diane Alexander sings her part with crystal clarity. A born actress, Alexander also summons just the right mixture of controlled frenzy and doe-eyed passion. As she gently sways back and forth during the spurious trial of Proctor and his wife, it's hard to tell whether Abigail (much less the other adolescents who are her conspirators) is the Devil's willing agent or is herself an innocent victim of a community's warped religious beliefs.

Rounding out the stellar cast are Natalie Levin's poetic Rebecca Nurse, Christina Harrop's riveting Mary Warren, and Chad Shelton's rock-ribbed Reverend Samuel Parris. And as vigorously sung by Adam Klein and a stouthearted chorus, Judge Danforth's lyrical Act Three exhortation (which echoes Act One's ominous "Jesus My Consolation") becomes a haunting battle cry of persecution instead of a clarion call for redemption--which, ironically enough, is the same sort of twisted morality that prompted playwright Miller to craft his own form of alchemy in the first place.

As is the case with Miller's most-produced play, Ward's clear moral outcry works like a charm.


The Crucible, through August 7 at the Central City Opera House, Eureka Street, Central City, 292-6700.

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