by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 22, 2002.
Mark Adamo’s "Little Women," an adaptation of the eternally adaptable Louisa May Alcott classic, opened at Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, New York, over the July 4th weekend. In many respects, it fulfills a stereotype of American opera which has become all too familiar: here is yet another unadventurous musicalization of a famous novel, movie, or play, obeying to the letter what might be called the Aunt Jemima instant-opera recipe, according to which three dollops of tonality and two pinches of dissonance are folded into a bowl of finely ground literature. Adamo’s "Little Women" might have been written almost anytime in the previous century, and it aches with nostalgia for an ideal nineteenth century that never was. But, on its own terms, it is a beautifully crafted work, and, as a first opera, it shows remarkable confidence. Adamo is a spirited, fast-witted composer, and if he can stop himself from writing more Merchant and Ivory sing-alongs he ought to have a major career.
Adamo’s "Little Women" is not exactly new, and that is what is newsworthy: it has shown staying power. Since its world première, at the Houston Grand Opera, in 1998, it has received more than a dozen stagings throughout the country, including productions by Opera Omaha and Opera in the Ozarks. It has even turned up on PBS, which tends to like its tenors in threes. Decades have passed since an American work has been allowed to reach out to audiences in this way. I say "allowed" because there are other pieces that have never been given a chance. John Adams’s "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer," which have gripped audiences elsewhere in the world, vanished from American stages shortly after their premières. (Incidentally, Adams, who said two years ago that he was ready to give up on opera altogether, has decided to return to the fray, with a work about the atom bomb and the Cold War. Godspeed.)
Why "Little Women"? Autobiographical young-adult narratives are historically not the kind that have set fire to the opera stage. "Don Giovanni," "Rigoletto," "Tristan and Isolde," "Peter Grimes": these are vibrant, violent stories, seething with lunacy and lust. It is curious, given the proven taste of the operagoing public, that American composers so often gravitate in the opposite direction, toward literary classics in which atmosphere dominates over action. Even "A Streetcar Named Desire"—set to music by André Previn a few years ago—pales in sheer incident next to red-meat bel canto; Verdi would have found the play insufferably slow. We are drawn to the idea of putting "Streetcar," "The Great Gatsby," or "Little Women" in an opera house because we think we want to experience a favorite text suffused with music—but that is not what opera is. Opera is anti-poetical, anti-novelistic, anti-intellectual. The greatest librettos are those that make us laugh out loud when we see them written down.
Nonetheless, Adamo, who served as his own librettist on "Little Women," does a brilliant job of molding Alcott’s tale into operatic form. He treats "Little Women" as a story of adult addiction to nostalgia and regret; the heroine, Jo, can’t surrender either the fact of her childhood or its idyllic aura. "The conflict of ‘Little Women,’" Adamo writes in a program note, "is Jo versus the passage of time." Whether or not that’s true, the composer is certain of himself, and therefore leagues ahead of better-known rivals who have tackled famous subjects without quite knowing what to do with them. Adamo does not seem like a musical tourist in a literary place; he lives here. He zips from one scene to another with cinematic speed but is not afraid to linger over baldly melodramatic touches, such as the telegram that announces the terminal illness of Jo’s sister Beth. We get strong snapshots of the sisters, Beth, Meg, and Amy, as well as of Jo’s two suitors, Laurie and Friedrich.
Yet Jo herself emerges as a puzzlingly unattractive character. Her resistance to her sisters’ marriages, to male advances, to all forms of change escalates into a strange mental obsession—"Perfect as it was" is her mantra. Adamo compares her to the Marschallin in "Rosenkavalier," suggesting that Jo, too, wants to stop all the clocks in the middle of the night. But it is easier to empathize with a thirty-something woman in that dilemma than with a teen-age girl. Clearly, Jo is channelling the adult sensibility of the composer, and at times the exercise becomes too self-conscious. At one point, Jo asks the music-loving Friedrich whether opera houses might somehow display the words to operas on banners. The joke gets laughs but punctures the illusion of the piece.
Adamo so far lacks a really distinctive personality as a composer, but he has a distinctive way of jumping from one compositional mode to another. Like Britten, he can turn on a stylistic dime, running the gamut from open-throated Broadway song to serpentine twelve-tonish writing. It is a wonderful gift, this versatility, but does he always need to use it? After a while, the stylistic plan of the piece starts to feel ruthlessly schematic. Plain major-key music represents Jo’s dream world; chromaticism, whole-tone harmonies, and cluster chords represent reality and change. The melodic passages have excellent hooks—the "Perfect as it was" aria is insidiously hummable in a Richard Rodgers way— but after a minute or two they seem to run up against an invisible boundary, beyond which the quasi-modernistic devices take over. Thus the best material seems to appear in quotation marks, as if the composer were apologizing for writing something so naïve. "Don’t worry," he seems to say. "I can do serious modern music, too." In an odd way, he may not be taking his melodies seriously enough.
I wish Adamo had dug deeper into the luminous F major of "Perfect as it was." The result might have come perilously close to musical theatre, but at this point we are more in need of good musical theatre than of another dexterous synthesis of twentieth-century techniques. Thirty years after the minimalist revolution, it would still be a radical gesture for a composer to cut loose the comfortable accessories of dissonance and to let tonality saturate a work. In composing, it doesn’t matter what materials you choose but, rather, what pictures and patterns you make from them. Adamo has an active enough mind to make fascinating music from the simplest possible material. This is the direction in which the best parts of "Little Women" are pointing.
The Glimmerglass production, which runs until August 25th and will be mounted at the New York City Opera next spring, has potent charm. Rhoda Levine, the director, and Peter Harrison, the designer, have given an "Appalachian Spring" austerity to the family tableaux. All the singers move naturally on the stage. At the second performance, Jennifer Dudley sang Jo in a warm, bright mezzo-soprano and with an excellent quality of girlish pluck. Sandra Piques Eddy, as Meg, showed a richly colored, flowingly expressive mezzo—she sounds like an important voice in the making. Joshua Hopkins sang Friedrich in a honey-toned, unforced baritone. Chad Freeburg, Christina Bouras, Caroline Worra, David Giuliano, and Josepha Gayer thrived in the other family roles. John DeMain drew a rough-edged but enthusiastic performance from the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra. The crowd exploded into applause at the end, and also after several of the arias. I suspect that in five or ten years’ time Mark Adamo will be greeted with ovations on the stage of the Met.