In creating a portrait of Jo March in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott gave us a gutsy, colorful tomboy who is unrivaled in 19th-century fiction. But no matter how intently critics argue that the story should be considered serious literature, it's still a girls' book. It's one of those precious, wordy tomes that girls savor in bits and pieces until they outgrow it. Adults rarely revisit it as they would Pride and Prejudice or Huckleberry Finn.
The prospect of adapting a sentimental, Civil War-era girls' novel into serious opera is daunting. To give the tale a more universal appeal, composer/librettist Mark Adamo has fashioned a drama that revolves solely around Jo. Told through Jo's flashbacks, this lyrical adaptation explores the character's stubborn refusal to watch her sisters leave and break up the family. In Houston Grand Opera's revival of a production originally premiered by HGO's Houston Opera Studio two years ago, audiences are treated to a near-flawless orchestral rendition of Adamo's stylistically varied score. But in the end the music feels less inspiring than Peter Webster's direction or Christopher McCollum's stagecraft or even the cleverness of the Adamo's own flashback-oriented libretto.
The story begins as Jo (Stephanie Novacek) reminisces with Laurie (Chad Shelton), her childhood friend, in the attic of the March family home. He has just married Jo's sister, Amy (Margaret Lloyd). Their conversation is strained, and it eventually provokes Jo into a dreamy recollection of family dramas: John Brooke's courtship of Meg (Joyce DiDonato), the oldest March sister; the illness and death of Jo's younger sister Beth (Stacey Tappan); and Laurie's infatuation with Jo.
In each scene, conductor Patrick Summers and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra elegantly maneuver within Adamo's disparate montage of styles. In his program notes, the composer alludes to two "main motives" that comprise the primary conflict: One is expressed in Jo's song "Perfect As We Are," with its dissonant hopes that the family's cozy, quiet life will never change. The second motive is woven into another, catchier tune, "Things Change," first sung by Meg, which reflects the family's alternative view that life goes on, no matter how much Jo clings to the past.
Novacek, the mezzo-soprano who created the role of Jo in 1998, reprises the character here. She has settled comfortably into the part, capturing in both voice and manner the blossoming writer's impatience and abruptness. Her sparked exchanges with mezzo DiDonato are delightful. Singing "Things Change," DiDonato offers the show's most satisfying performance: Her atonal recitative and melodically florid vocals are equally stimulating. Her defiance of Aunt March in scene two is a high point. As Meg's suitor, John Brooke, baritone Daniel Belcher sings a multi-stanza ballad that sounds like a Broadway show tune. Tenor Shelton's performance as Laurie is engaging, particularly when he proposes marriage to Jo.
Although he gives Novacek plenty of satisfying stage time as the narrator, Adamo seems to limit the mezzo's musical range. After she polishes off "Perfect As We Are" early on, Novacek, despite extensive recitatives, rarely has a moment that's quite as intoxicating; in fact, her music is frequently less stimulating than some solo and ensemble tunes showcased in the flashbacks. Toward the end, though, she starts to sizzle, staunchly rejecting Aunt March's promise of a rich inheritance. Her duet with mezzo Katherine Ciesinski is impressively executed and thematically significant, reinforcing Jo's determination to deviate from her aunt's static lifestyle.
Credit much of the excitement here to Webster, who is able to evoke Jo's unrealistic dreamworld through skillful direction that complements a set made to resemble a broken-down Victorian dollhouse. McCollum's set design and Megan Freemantle's careful props suggest the recesses of Jo's imagination. Webster's transition between real time to dream time is handled cleverly through lighting and trick props.
In the end, Adamo's Little Women transmutes a sentimental children's novel into a clever drama that probes the human aversion to the passage of time. Though Adamo's music is challenging, his skillfully constructed libretto is the thing that makes the opera worth seeing more than once.
Houston Grand Opera performs Little Women through Saturday, March 18, at 8 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 12, in the Wortham Theater Center. For more information, call (713)227-ARTS. $38-$77.
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