I wonder what Louisa May Alcott would have thought. Her “Little Women” was much bigger than she ever expected, and now it’s an opera with some of her words, but deftly re-written by the young American composer Mark Adamo. In a two act flash-back sandwiched between a prologue and a finale in the March family attic, we follow Jo’s struggle with how things change, and how she wants them to stay the same when things are “perfect as they are”. Would Ms Alcott have coped with this much change?
Mezzo Soprano Sally-Anne Russell is superb in the complex and demanding role of Jo, and is teamed with one of the finest line-ups of talent one could hope for anywhere. This production - cast, orchestra, direction, design could hold its end up in San Diego, New York, London or Bayreuth, and it is a credit to State Opera SA and the State Theatre Company that they embarked on this ambitious project of bringing new opera to Adelaide audiences, albeit one which has been tried with success elsewhere. It’s a pity there weren’t more of them there to hear this one. Perhaps more might have if there had been more effective publicity.
Furthermore, we can be proud of our young singers showcased in this work. James Eggelstone is a refreshingly unpretentious tenor tossing off the role of Laurie with élan. Jo’s three sisters all shone in their respective roles, and Jessica Dean was particularly convincing as the loyal, pale and waning Beth. Their ensemble singing was notable for its blend, and the rich baritone of Pelham Andrews (Friedrich) is one to keep an eye on or an ear out for.
I am always intensely grateful for surtitles, but can’t escape the feeling that it is in fact an indictment on opera singers that these are necessary when the words are being sung in English (to quote Jo: “The voice is beautiful, but I still would like to understand the words”!). Without wishing to detract from their talent, the younger singers amongst these little women could take a leaf out of the experienced book of the impeccably clear Elizabeth Campbell, who strode through the role of Aunt Cecelia March with style and grace. For her, surtitles were not necessary. Would that the same could be said of more divas.
Dean Hills’ design is plain and effective, yet on a grand scale, allowing for minimalist scene changes, and several contemporaneous locations for the action, forming a simple backdrop for the intricate complexities of the music. The huge trusses of the family attic were particularly striking.
Meanwhile in the pit, The Adelaide Art Orchestra was masterfully managed by conductor and founder of the orchestra, Timothy Sexton. He remained in control of the intricate and variable score, the fine players, and the well blended noises-off chorus. However this music is not easily accessible. It varies from a more lyrical narrative style to dodecaphonic angularity. The result is a somewhat amorphous tunelessness, which only increased my admiration for the way the singers coped with it. In a sense the story, with its tension between nostalgia and progress in post civil war New England, is not dramatic enough to carry this intense and somewhat difficult music. Apart from certain leitmotifs it was not until Friedrich’s “Kennst du das Land?” (Goethe) in the second act that there was really a discernible tune.
Will it last another hundred years as the novel has? As Jo mused, “Where will we be tomorrow? It’s not in my control.” Perhaps to paraphrase Sir Thomas Beecham: people may want to like this music, but may not love the noise it makes.
State Opera South Australia and
State Theatre Company of South Australia present
An Opera by Mark Adamo
The Dunstan Playhouse
19 May – 2 June
Sat 19, Tue 22, Thu 24, Sat 26, Tue 29, Thu 31 May + Sat 2 June 7.30pm
Adults $95*, Conc $90
131 246 or www.bass.net.au