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TV Review: Well-loved novel now an enjoyable opera, too

Wednesday, August 29, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

"Little Women," Louisa May Alcott's mid-1800s novel about four sisters in a lively Massachusetts family, is such prime material for an opera that it's surprising no major composer has used it for a libretto until now.

"Great Performances:
Mark Adamo's 'Little Women'"

When: 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Featuring: Stephanie Novacek, Chad Shelton, Margaret Lloyd, Chen-Ye Yuan and conductor Patrick Summers.


Ostensibly a story for young girls, it appeals on an adult level as well and has feminist overtones that ring true in modern times. Moreover, the novel portrays several well-defined female characters, which makes it useful for opera workshops and training programs in an era when male singers are at a premium in American conservatories.

Composer Mark Adamo, a 38-year-old native of Philadelphia, has seized on all this to create a modest little opera that works so well that -- less than three years after its premiere by the Houston Grand Opera -- it is already a repertory piece among regional American companies. Now, Adamo's opera "Little Women" has been preserved as an Ondine CD set and video as well.

The operatic version is a flashback, opening with the main character, Jo, composing poems in her attic and rebuffing the continued attentions of her former suitor -- Laurie -- who has married her younger sister Amy. The remainder of the work chronicles Jo's life at home and away, with three less-liberated sisters and a domineering mother and aunt.

In the course of the opera, one sister -- Meg -- enters a mundane marriage, while another -- the sensitive and artistic Beth -- becomes ill and dies.

There are five male characters as well -- suitors and elders -- but they are less sharply defined. Two, in fact, can be assigned to the same singer, and one may be optionally performed by a female singer "en travesti."

This is definitely a women's opera, and all the more suitable for workshops, which may give the composer indefinite mileage with this work down the road. Adamo writes accessible music that is at the same time substantial and illustrative of the dramatic situations.

The television version, airing at 8 tonight as an installment of "Great Performances" on PBS, uses several members from the original cast and is utterly engaging. Peter Webster's staging is tailor-made for adaptability to the small screen, and Brian Large directs the production in such a way as to create an intimacy between the viewer and each of the leading characters.

Musically, it is in good hands with conductor Patrick Summers, who allows the young singers lots of expressive leeway without sacrificing fidelity to the score. Each of the main characters is provided with at least one effusive aria or duet, and the not-quite-linear libretto allows for effective ensemble climaxes.

Jo (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek) and Laurie (tenor Chad Shelton) have the most to sing. They sing very well and act with their voices as well as their bodies. Margaret Lloyd shines in the coloratura that cannily defines the character of Amy.

Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan has perhaps the most beautiful voice of all, in the cameo role of Jo's New York housemate, Friederich Bhaer, who gets the loveliest solo of all: a new setting of one of the most popular German lieder texts in musical history, Goethe's "Kennst du das Land?"

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