Friday, May 13, 2016

Opera Colorado’s ‘Scarlet Letter’ the start of something big

Laura Claycomb as Hester Prynne in Opera Colorado's "The Scarlet Letter" [Photo by Matthew Staver/Courtesy Opera Colorado]
If you like being a part of history, you should get down to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House tonight, or Sunday afternoon. There you will see the world premiere of composer Lori Laitman and librettist David Mason’s “The Scarlet Letter,” the operatic adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1850 of Puritan guilt and shame.

Reviews are written for many reasons. Most readers just want to know: should I go or not? Yes, you should. Moving on. Most of the time the creatives involved in a project would just like some pull-quote-worthy praise for promotional purposes. (Hey, behind all this art, people need to sell tickets!)

Well, this “Scarlet Letter” is a great, thought-provoking work – but it’s not perfect. Which is why you should see it right now. More later. Moving on–

The story hews faithfully to the original. Hester Prynne, newborn child in arms, is publicly scorned by the close-minded Pilgrims of her town, and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for adultery for life. She stubbornly will not reveal the child’s father, the community’s pastor, Dimmesdale. Hester’s long-lost husband shows up, pretends to be someone else named Chillingworth, moves in with Dimmesdale, and tries to get him to confess. For years. Finally, Dimmesdale and Hester decide to leave town and start over together, but then for some reason Dimmesdale confesses publicly, reveals a scarlet “A” on his own chest, and dies. (Leaving Hester holding the bag, mind you . . . oh these sensitive men!)

Laitman is a past master at writing for the voice, and is completely up to the task here. If she has any musical or thematic predecessors in sight, they might be the vernacular mid-century American opera composers such as Carlisle Floyd or Douglas Moore, or the Britten of “Peter Grimes.” She has her own distinct voice, however, using beautiful flowing lines over complex harmonics, using a broad orchestral palette, but not for its own sake.

Hawthorne’s novel seems devilishly difficult to adapt; the grip of repression hangs heavy over all the characters, the opposite of opera’s usual emotional extremes. Poet David Mason boils Hawthorne down to fit the stage’s needs, in beautiful, simple, straightforward language. He fills out the characters and lets them voice observations, motivations, and attitudes that push them into three-dimensionality. In rhyme. This is quite a feat, and runs the risk of sounding too “June-spoon-moon” to the casual ear. But it works.

Several passages still stand out for me – the opening chorus, Hester’s lullaby to her illegitimate child and Dimmesdale’s nightmare in Act I, the forest duet in Act II, and of course Dimmesdale’s killer finish, as it were, at the opera’s end. But there are languors; some of the transitions between scenes are muddy, and Act 1 seems to peter out.

The piece also seemed to lose some energy and focus due to the sheer size of the stage and house. The cast is less than two dozen strong and sometimes seem to be swallowed up on a sterile field. The distances between characters seems vast at times, with awkward crossovers. Some movements were tentative or oblique, blocking expressions.

Stage designer Erhard Rom uses two curving, Serra-like monoliths that swivel, part, and fragment to define the space, backed with ramps, curtain, and scrim, which Greenberg uses to silhouette figures, hauntingly. Topher Blair’s projections are a huge contributing factor as well, manifesting a green forest glade, snow, stars, clouds – nesting the harshness of men inside a pervasive, affirming natural world. Beth Greenberg’s direction, Rom, and Blair work together closely to overcome the staging problems, with mixed results. But – I think that shrinking the stage picture, putting it on in a more intimate house the size of a Glyndebourne, would increase the work’s power tenfold.

Laura Claycomb plays Hester; Dominic Armstrong plays Dimmesdale, and Malcom MacKenzie plays Chillingworth. Of the three, Armstrong stands out as delivering a definitive performance here. He goes full throttle, vocally and emotionally, giving us a portrait of a man living in hell. To be fair, he also has the clearest motivation and the strongest emotional line in the opera. Chillingworth is an ambiguous figure, alternately friendly and menacing; Hester is an aloof figure, not really blowing open until the climactic forest duet. (Claycomb seemed to have a little breath trouble the night I saw the show.) The opera demands more emotional intensity.

So – it’s a tad raggedy. All newborns are. There’s something very vital and worthy here, though. Dimmesdale dies at the end, splayed out in a Pieta in the lap of Hester. And the crowd turns to the sky, and sings about the limits of human law and understanding as stars wheel above them, and it all comes together and that shivery feeling of transcendence takes place.

The audience completes the process. Take it from someone from the other side of the lights – how you clap, how you laugh, how you listen is keenly felt. It informs what the creatives are up to, gives them guidance, and helps them understand their work. The work doesn’t mean jack squat in a drawer.

As director Greenberg said last week, “People have misconceptions about going to the opera. They ask me, ‘What should I read? How should I prepare?’ Hey – you don’t have to prepare. If it’s done well, you will get it. Be on time, and buckle your seat belt.”

And here you have a little miracle. All these people and elements have finally come together and made this brilliant collaboration come alive. (Fortunately, Naxos is recording the shows and we will end up with a release in the fall of 2017.) Is “The Scarlet Letter” a classic? Will it join the repertoire? I have no idea. It’s taking shape right now, in front of the audience’s eyes. Criticism is nothing unless it spurs you to join in the process. Go, and see what you think.

Opera Colorado presents the world premiere production of Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter on May 13, and 15 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1385 Curtis Street. For tickets and information please visit operacolorado.org.