A 'Little Women' That's A Little Too Familiar

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 18, 2007

Mark Adamo's "Little Women," an opera based on the Louisa May Alcott classic, has enduring strength. Its familiar story and its expressive music have made it one of the most popular new operas of the last two decades. It has shown itself to be a work with healthy bones.

So, why does the Summer Opera Theatre Company's new production at Catholic University treat it with kid gloves?

The performance in the Hartke Theatre drove for the high-end values you expect from the Summer Opera company, now in its 29th year. Affecting singing, multi-dimensional acting and polished musical accompaniment were all there in the Washington premiere Saturday. Yet the overall staging, serviceable enough, missed a chance to say something new and to push the piece to its limits.

With a literal approach, director David Grindle puts the story of the March family squarely in the requisite mid-19th-century New England, dressing the characters in hoop dresses or staid suits of the day. If the libretto -- also a product of the composer's surefire hand -- calls for an attic or living room, there was the Fred Duer-designed spare attic (a wooden trestle) or that warmly appointed living room (upright piano and upholstered furniture). No need for much imagination here.

In making it fit the stage, Adamo himself changed the emphasis of the story, lessening the focus on the Civil War and the March family's poverty. At the same time, all those productions of Adamo's opera -- an incredible 40 across the globe since the 1998 Houston premiere -- have let routine settle in and sapped some of the magic.

A sensible updating, perhaps a more contemporary setting and abstract imagery, would add contrast to the message about love, loss, family separation and the inevitability of change.

Still, the polish and energy of the performers more than compensated on Saturday. In the role of Jo, Jenna Lebherz sang with a pleasant if occasionally underpowered mezzo-soprano, skillfully tracing the character's growing realization that time cannot stand still. James Biggs was a fine Laurie, whose romantic entreaties to Jo go unrequited.

Elaine Dalbo, another mezzo, beautifully sang Meg's soaring first-act aria, while soprano Ashleigh Rabbitt brought a heartfelt angelic quality to her solo in the second act. Kelly Smith was as affecting as the dying Beth as mezzo Laura Zuiderveen was surly as Aunt Cecilia. Alexandra Christoforakis, Christopher Rhodovi and James Shaffran sang with vocal dexterity and musicianship.

But it was bass-baritone Joshua Sekoski who almost stole the show with his arresting portrayal of Professor Bhaer, singing a poignant German lied to express his growing feelings for Jo. That skillfully turned moment tied together several sequences that poke fun at the genre of opera and delineate its limits and possibilities.

Serving every layer of "Little Women" -- story, psychological study and artistic commentary -- was the music, which conductor Kate Tamarkin elicited with great color and unity of effort from the Student Orchestral Institute. The scoring, now revealing flavors of Aaron Copland at his most tuneful, now Arnold Schoenberg at his most pungent, was thoroughly brilliant, if occasionally predictable.

Spirited if risk-averse, this engaging "Little Women" production repeats Wednesday and Sunday. For more information see http://www.summeropera.org.

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