Opera in the Heights Lovingly Presents Mark Adamo's Music in Little Women

Little Women onstage at Lambert Hall
Little Women onstage at Lambert Hall
Photo courtesy of Opera in the Heights

The setup:

“Things change.”

That's what everybody sings innumerable times in Mark Adamo's astringent operatic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's family portrait, Little Women (1998). What doesn't change, however, is Adamo's unvarying musical palette, a primer on why a lot of folks don't cotton to contemporary opera.

Full of dissonance, atonal glides, abrupt shifts of modality and meter, this percussive musical style sounds harsh and unrelenting. Jagged and spiky, it neither warms nor caresses. It assaults. As a fatal consequence, it distances us from the very theme the opera is at pains to picture. We draw back from the family portrait, even when we most want to embrace it.

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The execution:
That's not to say that Adamo is not felicitous and immensely crafty. This former wunderkind knows what he's doing. His chamber orchestration is sumptuously accomplished, deeply textured and lovingly rendered under maestro Eiki Isomura and his nimble ensemble. And the libretto, written by the composer, is an adept, if overly psychoanalytical, distillation of Alcott's novel for young girls. The Opera in the Heights' production is suitably blessed by a radiant cast that sails through Adamo's prickly score as if it were as lush as Puccini. Especially effective are mezzo Monica Isomura (the maestro's wife) as feisty Jo, who battles for things to remain as they are; mezzo Jennifer Crippen as family beauty Meg; tenor Alexander Scheuermann as Jo's on-and-off-again beau Laurie; bass-baritone Nate Mattingly as decent Professor Bhaer, who wins Jo at the end; and Laura Coale as desiccated rich aunt Cecilia.

Through no fault of her own and try as she might, Monica Isomura, with her appealing presence and lively voice, cannot invest Jo with qualities like independence and willfulness, because Adamo has drained them from her. As musically depicted, she's more prig than tomboy. Seen through her memory, this is Jo's story now, and as she takes center stage, her foibles and steely resolve, which are balanced out in the novel by the other characters who share equally in the domestic drama, now seem calculated and borderline wacko. She's lost her charm.

While Adamo deftly stages his memory play with shifting time and simultaneous action, there's little room for the others, and they're glossed over, ill-defined. The death of Beth (soprano Julie Hoeltzel) from scarlet fever is hardly felt because she's never been there to begin with.

But there are glimmers in this score that offset the chill, and they're wonderfully delivered by Mattingly's Professor and Coale's delightfully stuffy Aunt Cecilia.

When Jo moves to New York City to distance herself from Laurie and jump-start her writing career, she meets the older Professor at the boardinghouse. Stable and decidedly middle-class, he subtly woos her with a song based on Goethe's poem, “Know'st thou the land where lemon trees bloom.” Bhaer sings it to Jo first in German, then translates it for her. All at once, the opera breathes. See, Adamo can write pleasing melody when he wants to. We settle back in our seats, content and satisfied with this pastiche of German lieder that slyly evokes Brahms and Richard Strauss. It is the opera's one true ray of sunshine, beautifully rendered by Mattingly. But Adamo can't resist the pull of the dissonant, and the end of the aria is veered into submission once again.

Coale's Aunt Cecilia plows onto the stage like some stately galleon, full-rigged in black. Ornery and decidedly set in her ways as if carved into a temple wall, she's a commanding presence with a commanding voice, deep and rock-ribbed. She's also a commanding character, bringing much-needed life into the wobbly story. Coale anchors the opera, stripping away the pretense. Her Act II aria where she baits Jo, tempting her with the prospect of her “mansion of stone,” is a musical highlight. Jo's smart enough to realize that the future estate will entomb her, like her aunt, like a Miss Haversham. This is not the change she pines for. The aria turns into a duet, each strong woman vying rightly for what she believes. Dramatic and true, the scene resuscitates the opera. The sisters have a final quartet that resonates even with its new-agey ethereal style that bends tone, but, ultimately, the opera lacks heart.

The verdict:
For all its contempo sound, Little Women is devoid of atmosphere. It's cold and stand-offish. I'm not asking for Stephen Foster, but would a bit more 19th-century be so bad?

The production is impressionistic with its open walls and shifting scenes; Clairmarie Verheyen's costumes are gingham perfect; and Adamo's difficult score is lovingly presented. This is 21st-century professionalism all around. That's modern enough.

Little Women continues at 2 p.m. April 2; 7:30 p.m. April 6 and 8 at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $13 to $71.

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Lambert Hall

1703 Heights Blvd.
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