All these years we have lived with the awful knowledge that at the end of "Great Expectations" Martita Hunt burned up in that terrible fire. Well, the familiar images of the 1946 film version have now been changed -- though whether or not for the better, it is hard to say at this moment.
A brand new operatic version of Dickens' famous story about the woman who was jilted by her lover only moments before they were to have been married tells the whole story in flashbacks.
Titled "Miss Havisham's Fire," with music by Dominick Argento and a libretto by John Olon-Scrymgeour, ("After Dickens"), the new opera had its permiere Thursday night at the New York City Opera.
At the very end, having shown the audience Miss Havishman twice going up in flames, and having taken their listeners through a long inquest into the cause of her death, the composer and librettist throw a curve: A final reshowing of the fatal wedding day, seen once more in the mind of the old recluse, finds her ending the opera by saying to the young Estella, "Oh fudge! Now let us drink our tea and I will tell you all about men."
It's a switch, but then, one of the most revered operatic prerogatives is that of tacking hapy endings onto stories everyone knows come out tragically. Even "Romeo and Juliet" and "Othello."
Another of the most favorite of all 19th-century operatic traditions is a centerpiece in the new opera. It ends with Miss Havisham in one of the longest mad scenes in the history of musical theater. Originally conceived as a role for Beverly Sills, the part was bequeathed by Sills months ago to her colleague, Rita Shane, who covered herself with a lange measure of glory in it.
Argento, who won a Pulitzer Prize several years ago for song cycle, is fully as comfortable in the largest operatic manner. His orchestra is that of Strauss and Mahler, as, from time to time, is some of his striking writing. Elegance and a grand, splendid sound are all to be heard in "Miss Havisham." With a large cast of principals, he moves easily through a variety of vocal textures that include both men's and women's groups. Early in the opera, there are passages for high women's voices that are highly reminiscent of Britten's "Peter Grimes" or the "Ariadne" of Richard Strauss. Nor are these the last times that Britten opera comes to mind.
Without making Miss Havisham the single major role, Argento has created for his central character a grand part demanding a greatly gifted actress with a dazzling coloratura technique. With both of these. Shane triumphed handsomely.
There is much else to admire in the score. Throughout it is enhanced by some of the most original choral writing in opera. Each of its two acts begins with a small group of singers, barely visible, and barely audible, creating a misty kind of sound that strongly suggests the fadd shreds of time through which the story is told. And in a great ballroom scene in the second act, a large choral episode supports a gala dancing ensemble.
Three of the principals (Miss Havisham, Pip and Estelle) are double-cast, appearing both as young people and then as their more familiar, mature selves. Gianna Rolandi as Miss Havisham on her wedding day is lovely and lively, singing with an ideal youthful beauty and fire.
Susanne Marsee is the grownup Estelle, the flirt who never ceases to tease Pip, first when he is a young boy, later as man. She is a top-notch singing actress whose voice was one of the pleasures of the evening. Alan Titus sings the mature Pip, easy in manner and elegant to hear, though at times the role is a bit heavier than he can handle.
Several of the finest moments in the opera come from Elaine Bonazzi who, as the old Nanny, acts and sings with a mature art that rivets the attention.
The lighting by Gilbert Hemsley is brilliantly adapted to the mood of unreality that dominates most of the opera, and is equally effective in its few moments of bright reality.
There is something slightly overdone in the appearance of Miss Havisham herself. Is it really essential that Shane should look like a cross between the Witch of Endor and all three of the crones in "Macbeth?"
Where the new score runs into seri ous trouble is in its repetitiousness which is both real and, at times, comes across ina feeling that some things are simply being said and sung too often. We should not have to listen to Pip and Estelle as children in identical dialogue three times. Once is plenty. Some fairly extensive cutting would make the opera much more interesting and make it easier for it to hold the interest -- it runs over three hours in playing time and a half-hour less might strengthen rather than weaken its final impact.
Julius Rudel conducted with great skill, having every aspect of the new work firmly in hand, and illuminating it with many subtle touches. Everyone involved made the most of the material. Since the opera is to be broadcast in the City Opera's current radio series, it will be heard in Washington within the next few weeks.