Great Performances: Little Women From Houston Grand Opera – Review
Great Performances: Little Women From Houston Grand Opera* Music and libretto by Mark Adamo * Starring Stephanie Novacek, Joyce DiDonato, Margaret Lloyd, Stacey Tappan, Chad Shelton * PBS * Premieres August 29, 8 P.M. Eastern (check local listings)
At a time when prosaic pundits proclaim the death of classical music, the August 29 PBS premiere of composer-librettist Mark Adamo’s 1998 opera Little Women has the potential to shame the little darlings into silence. Adamo’s writing is so good, and the production so strong, that Little Women is likely to earn a chance at the title of “greatest American opera.”
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, the opera revolves around the maturation of four sisters from “little women” into adulthood. The key to their growth is their transition from familial love to a love that involves relationships and sex, i.e., the love of men. With its validation of family and the “natural” evolution into marriage, the plot may seem like a tired ‘advertisement for nuclear heterosexuality. Instead, in the hands of Alcott and Admno, it is a moving treatise on change, growth, and love.
The opera is in two acts, with most of the plot set in the house in which the four March sisters–Jo (Stephanie Novacek), Meg (Joyce DiDonato), Beth (Stacey Tappan), and Amy (Margaret Lloyd)–live with their parents (Gwendolyn Jones and James Maddalena). As the production opens, Jo, the staunchly independent sister of the bunch, reconnects with her childhood friend and former suitor, Laurie (Chad Shelton). Laurie has returned to tell Jo of his marriage to Amy and his plans to give Amy the love that would have been Jo’s had she not scorned Laurie a few years before.
Over a series of flashbacks, music, dialogue, and action flow effortlessly in a winning succession of monologues, arias, duets, quartets, and even an octet. The acting is convincing, the singing first-class, and the music consistently engaging.
Some may cry that this unabashedly lyrical, seductively tonal work is as derivative as The Ghosts of Versailles, the opera by Adamo’s lover, John Corigliano, that achieved national telecast a decade ago. So what? By avoiding sentimental cliches while giving us music that makes us feel good, Adamo has melded the best that Broadway and classical tradition have to offer into a fresh, wonderful work that will likely have you replaying the arias again and again.
Serinus is a music reviewer, musician, and editor of Psychoimmunity & the Healing Process.
Find more on composer Mark Adamo and Little Women at www.advocate.com
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