Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" came to George Mason University's Center for the Arts last weekend. Actually, it was Thea Musgrave's "A Christmas Carol, The Opera," but the differences are marginal. Musgrave has tightened the beloved old holiday ghost story and put it to music that intensifies its strong feelings, with staging that puts Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, the ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future vividly before your eyes.
It might be an exaggeration to say that Musgrave, the internationally acclaimed resident composer of the Virginia Opera, has improved Dickens. But it would not be much of an exaggeration. At any rate, in Friday night's performance the transition from printed page to musical stage was smooth, powerful and made with detailed fidelity to the original.
The story hardly needs to be described; it is miser Scrooge's dark night of the soul, leading into his rebirth in a spirit of love and generosity. This is a fine operatic subject, with opportunities for somber and sparkling music. It involves spectacular stagecraft that the Virginia Opera gleefully exploits -- ghosts, flashbacks, trapdoors, clouds of smoke, and a variety of symbols, including a giant gravestone bearing Scrooge's hypothetical epitaph.
The centerpiece of Erhard Rom's simple and versatile scenery is a mobile staircase that is pushed about by ghostly supernumeraries to propel the story into Scrooge's past or future, his office or home, a London street, scenes of his childhood and young manhood, and his cemetery. The scenes shift effortlessly, aided by composer-librettist Musgrave's fine craftsmanship. The music is mostly a harmonically rich, expertly orchestrated continuous melody in the post-Wagnerian manner with only the few lyric interruptions required by the plot. The seasonal flavor is enhanced by leitmotifs in the orchestration that allude to familiar melodies, notably "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," which is also sung by a children's chorus at the end.
This opera seems to have a large cast, but it can be produced with only seven singers taking multiple roles. Two performers are onstage most of the time and restricted to a single role. Randall Scarlata sang the aged Scrooge with convincing stage presence and intense expression, while others embodied him in earlier life. Daniel Breaker danced and mimed the Spirit of Christmas (Past, Present and Future) with agility and a finely honed skill in nonverbal communication. Paul Fink (Tiny Tim) is a seasoned performer at a tender age, having appeared in many theatrical productions. He has been typecast as Tiny Tim in spoken adaptations of the story, and he plays the role as though born to it. Also noteworthy is David Barron, who begins the opera as Marley's ghost and concludes it in the transvestite role of Great Aunt Ermentrude in the festive final scene.
Supporting singers who performed well in more than one role included Moira Girard, Danielle Hermon, Elizabeth Hogue, Gary Biggle, Andrew Krikawa and Terry Hodges. Peter Mark, artistic director of the company and husband of the composer, conducted with close attention to the music's many fine nuances. Rom's sets and Dorothy Danner's stage direction worked synergistically.
The program will be repeated at the Carpenter Center for the Arts in Richmond on Friday and on Dec. 1 and 3. For information visit vaopera.org; for tickets call 804-262-8100.