I’m not a prayin’ man, but I’ll swear there are miracles on view at the Eisenhower Theater. Imagine an Arthur Miller play not only working as an opera, but in certain ways winding up improved by the musicalization. Or a famous film director making a seamless transition to the rigors of opera staging. Or a large ensemble of classically trained singers delivering the text with the conviction of fine actors. Now toss in English sung clearly enough to render surtitles superfluous, and you’ll agree that something cosmic must be going on.
Of course, in a perfect world, none of this would be newsworthy. But the fact is, few American operas have the propulsive motion, the natural feeling for home-grown speech patterns, the easy lyricism, or the sly musical mix of Broadway, Hollywood, and 20th-century opera to be found in composer Robert Ward’s 1961 adaptation of The Crucible. And singer-director chemistry in the opera world rarely reaches the level of nuance and commitment evident in Bruce Beresford’s production for Washington Opera.
Remember the plot? An Important Citizen in the community commits a marital infidelity with an underling who, in turn, starts making noises to the local right-wing governing body. The Important Citizen decides to keep mum about his role in the scandal until his family is threatened, and then admits to itthough his wife swears his innocence up and down. Attempts at damage control and a careful wording of his confession are no match for the single-mindedness of his accusers. (It seems that even among Puritans there are puritans.) Our Important Citizen winds up with his head in a noose.
It doesn’t hurt the process of creating believable drama to be working with good material. Librettist Bernard Stambler has condensed and adapted Miller’s powerfulif sometimes long and preachytale of the 1690s Salem witch hunts into a tight, edge-of-the-seat piece of Hitchcockiana. If there was any doubt about whether Miller’s and (to a lesser extent) Stambler’s anti-McCarthy subtext would still play today, the answer is: HUAC, SCHMUAC! This story might as well have been written about our current woes.
The story’s currency helps goose the acting level. In a large cast21 roles plus chorusflapping arms and vacant stares are conspicuous by their absence, and even the more theatrically challenged operatrons up there seem engaged and focused. Best of all is Kimm Julian’s well-nigh perfect John Proctor (the Important Citizen). Julian brings to the role a hulking physicality, eyes alive with a mix of guilt and indignation, and a kind of nobility born of hard-won life lessons. Finding no need to puff up his attractively burnished baritone into false profundity, he’s the most natural singing actor in the production.
The entire Proctor householdthe family at the center of the witch huntis cast from strength. Kristine Jepson plays Elizabeth Proctor’s doubt and quiet desperation with harrowing acuity, and sings movingly. Lisa Saffer is a wonder of skittishness and neurosis as the Proctors’ maid, Mary Warren, her piping soprano as arresting here as it is in the Handel operas she sings so well. As Mary’s predecessor, Abigail Williams, Susan Tilbury creates a manipulative but not very bright teenager whose romantic obsession and laundry list of resentments derange her, but in an unnervingly ingenuous way.
All this lived-in character detail is due in no small part to Beresford, whose naturalistic eye made Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, and Driving Miss Daisy the memorable actorfests they were. He’s created a similar magic with the singers here. (The director’s only miscalculation was his placement of an immensely likable bulldog directly upstage center during the trial scene. The pooch seemed to find the testimony a yawn and let it be known.)
Musically, this production of The Crucible is in terrific shape. Conductor Daniel Beckwith keeps the motor running in the pit and gets lovely solo and ensemble work from his vocalists, though the Eisenhower acoustics are (as always) disappointing in their lack of bloom. John Stoddart’s sets are a Shaker-furniture-lover’s wet dream, and his way of stripping stark wooden beams from the roofs of Salem’s houses to reveal roiling, occluded skies is an inspired touch. (Kudos, too, for the real fire raging in the Proctors’ hearth.) Stoddart’s costumes look as if real people really wear them. Joan Sullivan-Genthe’s lighting casts aptly sinister shadows and makes the sky a living character in the drama.
Now, if only WashOp could catch the millennial spirit of change and rebirth and start treating the 18th- and 19th-century repertoire with the same kind of imagination, engagement, and respect they’ve shown to Mr. Ward’s opera. Hey, miracles can happen.
The only miraculous thing about WashOp’s The Abduction From the Seraglio is how much zest has been sucked out of it. That’s a shame, considering how clever Mozart’s score is, so full of loopy humor and the blush of young love. Michael Hampe as set designer creates a beautiful environment with minimal meansa copse of palms, a narrow wrought-iron gate letting a band of sunshine through an expanse of sand-colored walland Joan Sullivan-Genthe bathes it all in light calibrated down to the precise hour of the day.
But Hampe as stage director misses the boat, though his fundamental approach is laudable. Playing down Abduction’s cartoonish elements, he nudges his cast toward naturalismrefreshing in an opera loaded with nonmusical text. Spoken dialogue is, of course, notorious for turning otherwise worthy tenors into Mighty Mouse and sopranos into Julia Child as they attempt to get their big, rhetorical voices around pages of crusty old melodrama. (The Met’s recent Fledermaus broadcast was excruciating in this regard.) But Hampe’s singers, here not allowed to fall back on their usual animatronic habits, resort to vocal mugging or, more often, barely inflect the text at all. Factor in the glacial pace Hampe establishes for the spoken scenes, and one of Mozart’s liveliest creations turns into a real snore.
In certain cases, this reticence with the text bleeds into the musical side of things. In the romantic leading role of Belmonte, John Osborn, despite a true Mozart-tenor voice of grace and beauty, phrases as if he has no idea what he’s singing about, and he wanders around seemingly unaware he’s on a stage playing a character. Belmonte comes off like a listless boobwhich doesn’t work, especially when set against Mary Dunleavy’s credible and involved Constanze (Belmonte’s kidnapped love interest, whom he must free from the harem). If Dunleavy’s bright, slightly edgy voice sounds like a lot of others in the current crop of all-purpose American sopranos, her gleaming coloratura is a much rarer commodity, and she phrases with passion and conviction.
As the requisite pair of wily servant characters, Jane Giering-De Haan shuttles between pallid and petulant (and little else) as Blonde, and John Daniecki, as Pedrillo, has about three big faces in his comic arsenal that he works relentlessly. Daniecki’s voice is one of the evening’s best, though, and his Act 2 aria is dispatched with clarion confidence. In a lovely bit of casting, Thomas Stewartthe world’s pre-eminent Wotan and Hans Sachs 30 years agotakes the nonsinging role of Pasha Selim, delivering his lines with all the authority of the gods he used to play. As Selim’s buffoonishly sadistic palace guard Osmin (likely not a fave of Arab anti-defamation types), Günter Missenhardt looks all the world like Shemp Howard, but his pacemaker is set closer to Abe Vigoda. With a wonderfully grainy, rolling bass, he gives us the outline of this scene-stealing role, but misses a lot of potential laughs.
What really saves the eveningindeed, makes it worth the steep price of admissionis Julia Jones’ kinetic work on the podium. Keeping winds and “Turkish” percussion well to the fore, Jones nearly conquers those dry Eisenhower acoustics with her razor-sharp balancing and sheer verve. The whole score is lovingly shaped, down to often-neglected details. Here is a conductor who deserves a return engagement, the one divine spark in a somewhat purgatorial evening.CP
Performances of The Abduction From the Seraglio will have different singers in the roles of Constanze, Blonde, and Pedrillo on Jan. 18 and 24.