In 1692, Tituba and a gaggle of Puritan girls frolicked by night in the woods outside Salem and allegedly conjured up the devil, an event that embroiled the witnesses and a whole township in a massive, tragic witch-hunt. By night, during this summer of 2016, surrounded by the woods of Cooperstown New York, there has been a conjuring of an entirely different sort. Director Francesca Zambello, conductor Nicole Paiement, and a company of designers, singers and musicians at The Glimmerglass Festival have delivered that rare phenomenon where acting, music, and visuals, have all come seamlessly together to sweep up today’s witnesses in the magic of music-theatre at its best.
Robert Ward’s opera of The Crucible follows Arthur Miller’s play almost exactly in its language. It makes for an unusually word-dense operatic score. Miller’s attempt in the original at producing something approaching a Puritan pattern of speech has challenged some theatre productions and certainly the film version of the work, coming across as somewhat stilted. However, the language seems perfectly suited set to operatic music. Ward’s score keenly lifts and points out the poetry in the speech patterns and grammatical constructions.
I was told that Miller had always been able to envision his work as an opera. The Crucible characters have a kind of stature and stark nobility. Miller refused serving as lead librettist but participated in the creation of Ward’s opera, informing the work greatly by reading his play out loud to the composer. Ward carefully transcribed emotional phrasing and word operatives, capturing how the originator of the theatrical masterpiece heard his own work. Consequently the libretto attributed to (but to my mind only expanded by) Bernard Stambler, is powerful indeed.
More importantly in operatic terms, Ward has done what few other operatic composers in the last century have been able to do, set text to music that is both melodic and emotionally eloquent. In short, he knows how to write for the voice and he lets the singers sing. And boy, do we in the audience lap it up!
Recently, I had seen the Broadway production of The Crucible directed by Ivo van Hove. While I appreciated the singular vision and conceptual style of the Belgian director, I thought that by placing the play in a contemporary setting actually created a filter that ended up distancing the work and muffling the emotional resonances of the play. Zambello and company thankfully left well enough alone. Both the resonances and relevance to today were left to be felt not hammered in.
Zambello proves once again she is remarkably prescient in identifying material that will speak to our times. She must have selected her Glimmerglass season long before Trump had whipped up his own hysteria. Perhaps she has been conjuring for some Satanic help after all.
If so, the terrific creative team was right there with her. Neil Patel designed a backdrop depicting a New England facade that switches to become the interior of John and Elizabeth Proctor’s home. The set handily also serves as the court where all the victims accused are brought to be prosecuted. Patel also incorporated a scrim showing woods at night, reminiscent of photographer Ansel Adams’ silver prints, where naked tree-limbs gleam by moonlight. The beautiful work eerily evokes the dark, sexual power of woods and the theme is carried through the production’s design by a sensual tangle of branches that reach down from the top of the stage into the Puritan’s fragile civilization.
Mark McCullough lit the proceedings giving the production a stark beauty and creating some of his own magical effects. With lighting coming from below the stage, he conjured an outdoor bonfire, a Barbadian dream sequence, and the transfixion of individuals caught in the runaway nightmare-world of mass hysteria. His side lighting masterfully enhances the wonderful choreography by Eric Sean Fogel that animates possession or the power of suggestion on the adolescent mind.
Nothing was wasted. Everything served to focus the telling of the story. This is the Zambello trademark. And the night I saw the show, the heavens too seemed to conspire with her, for a thunderous, almost apocalyptic storm rained down.
Jamie Barton and Brian Mulligan play Elizabeth and John Proctor, and they bring their seasoned powers to the opera. The second scene focuses on their fractured marriage, and the composer has accentuated this by never allowing them to merge into a duet or even sing in the same key. The two singers sing beautifully and their acting is so very truthful and heartbreaking they convince us that these two are worlds apart. In every musical phrase and pause they portray the moment-to-moment yearning of these two souls who cannot express their love or heal the brokenness of their dreams.
Zambello keeps the tension winding up throughout Act I, and conductor Paiement drives the music. Unlike so much opera which indulges in bursts of applause at the end of every aria, the two women at the head of this production never allow even the littlest “mini catharsis” (and relaxation) of the audience. By the end of the act, when Proctor sings, “My wife will never die for me” and the orchestra makes us surely feel God’s raw wind blowing, the audience is left gasping. It is inspired.
David Pittsinger has become my favorite singer-actor, and he does not disappoint in the complex role of Reverend Hale. Pittsinger has the vocal size and dramatic stature to pull off Hale’s enormous dramatic arc, from aiding and abetting the scapegoat seekers to valiantly trying to halt the proceedings and dampen the emotional conflagration. He does more in little moments of silence than most singer-actors deliver in their most powerful arias. He shares with the audience his character’s inner turmoil, the mounting horror, and the weight of his guilty complicity. As for his singing, what power and range this guy has! As Ward challenges the singer in the score to step down to ever deeper notes, Pittsinger produces those tones as surely as he would drag us all to hell if need be.
closes August 27, 2016
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Ariana Wehr plays Abigail, a young girl caught up in vengeful romantic fantasies and the opera’s other leading female role. The character (and the romantic relationship Abigail has had with Proctor) is one of the few historic inventions by Miller but it’s a masterful one. Wehr, a tiny package of a girl, has a physical and emotional power that shoots out like firecrackers. She seizes every moment on stage. The soprano is not afraid to punch consonants and fills language with emotional intensity. Her portrayal of Abigail is an original, less a voluptuous seductress than a desperate adolescent girl with an overwrought imagination, trying to escape the strictures of a Puritan life.
Mary Beth Nelson, Maren Weinberger, Emma Grimsley, and Molly Jane Hill play the other girls who share in instigating the jailing and murder of so many innocent people. The singers throw themselves into the physical and emotional challenges of their roles, and their technical execution of Fogel’s choreography is superb. Some of their voices have not as yet matured, but they are supported sensitively by Paiement, who has thinned some orchestral passages so their voices don’t get buried.
Jay Hunter Morris gives the historical Judge Danforth a reality and depth, presenting a man swept away by his own rigidity and power. It’s an effective performance but a very scary mirror about people who allow themselves to be in the grip of unreasonableness.
There are so many good performances in the large cast. I was particularly moved by Zoie Reams as Tituba and Mero Khalia Adeeb as Sarah Good, especially when they sang their duet. Reams helps us feel the enslaved and jailed outsider’s desperate longing for a different world order. Adeeb sang in counterpart a beautiful vocalize. Ward and the singers have introduced a beautiful perspective, color, and sound into the opera. (Throughout, I was deeply moved by Ward’s rich musical palette, using Protestant-like hymns, folk tunes, and even spirituals with strong dramatic musical exchanges.)
Michael Miller creates an unforgettable figure as the uptight Putnam, member of the orthodox elite. He reminded me of the terrific actor David Warner and Miller possesses a very clean baritone sound. Gabriella Sam plays Goody Putnam, his wife, and is a lovely singer. Chaz’men Williams-Ali plays Giles Corey, the stubborn New Englander, who even when stones are heaved on his body, will not give names but only calls for “more weight.” He’s a favorite character of mine and Williams-Ali does him justice.
The ensemble singing and Glimmerglass orchestra in the final scene are terrifically balanced by the intimate power of Proctor and Elizabeth finally coming together (singing a duet in E flat major) – all in such a musically satisfying way. As the unwilling hero Proctor struggles but finally chooses to keep his name unblemished by succumbing to a lie, he indeed “has his goodness now.”
We all know that Miller’s play was written in response to the Red Scare and the congressional “witch hunt” headed up by Joe McCarthy where hundreds of people were asked to name names of communist sympathizers. However, it has proven to be an important and lasting work that speaks out against tyranny and resonates with many socio-political situations where people have been whipped up in some kind of popular frenzy to the ruination of many. Today it speaks to the mischief that has swelled a populist movement and exposed our society’s very worst ills and fears.
The eruption of cheers and calls of “Bravi” at the end of the performance not only signaled this was a moving and powerful production but also seemed to cry out for a reckoning of our current situation and restoration to sanity before it is too late
The Crucible. Composed by Robert Ward. Libretto by Bernard Stambler. Based on the play by Arthur Miller. Conducted by Nicole Paiement. Directed by Francesca Zambello. Scenery by Neil Patel. Costumes by Jessica Jahn. Lighting by Mark McCullough. Choreography by Eric Sean Fogel. Featuring Mero? Khalia Adeeb, Frederick Ballentine, Jamie Barton, Emma Grimsley, Mary Jane Hill, Ian Koziara, Michael Miller, Jay Hunter Morris, Brian Mulligan, Mary Beth Nelson, Zachary Owen, David Pittsinger, Zoie Reams, Ariana Wehr, Maren Weinberger, Chaz’men Williams-Ali, and the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. Produced by Glimmerglass Festival. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.