Salem's horrendous late 17th century witch trials begot Arthur Miller's
melodramatic play, "The Crucible," in 1953, with clear and obvious
references to the machinations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American
Activities Committee. Miller's play begot Robert Ward's relentlessly
overemotional opera of the same title, in 1961, now being produced by
Opera San Jose, even as the local alternative media mutters darkly about
the story's possible connections with the era of the Patriot Act.
Can a straightforward account of history such as this cause the
scratching of heads? The linear progression may be clear, but how do
you square "horrendous," "melodramatic" and "relentlessly overemotional"?
Two important answers to that solve the problem as if there were none.
The audience Sunday afternoon in the California Theater had its hands
busy with thunderous applause - a rather amazing event at a contemporary
opera. As to Opera San Jose, it just took those potentially disparate
elements of the work, and did its collective very best with them...
Both Miller and, especially, Ward tend to turn the spectacle of a society
turning plain evil of fear and superstition, unleashing false accusations
and the destruction of lives, into a potboiler, an overwrought soap.
Text, characters, music combine for a high level of hysteria, spiced
with a bit of sex and encouraging characters to lurch about as if just
dropping in from a local production of "The Drunkard." There are few
resting points in the play, and none in the opera, so the company's
successful production must receive A's for both effort and stamina.
With a practical and wise invitation to San Jose Rep's Timothy Near,
Opera San Jose secured an outstanding theater director to take charge
of Salem-in-the-South-Bay, and she keeps the melodrama in motion splendidly,
turning the (mostly) young singers into veritable thespians. In the
pit, Anthony Quartuccio presides over a hardworking orchestra, which
does equally well with the score's variable nature, be it symphonic,
folk, the blues or Broadway - all sounding pretty much the same, and
Elizabeth Poindexter's authentic (if anachronistically clean) 17th
century costumes do wonders for Kent Dorsey's spacious set design,
which combines Danish modern surfaces with stage-high glass tubes lit
from within. Surely, the tubes "mean something," but no luck so far
finding what that may be.
The large cast - mostly company regulars - does admirable work, musically,
dramatically and, up to a point, in diction. Obviously well coached and
trying their best, the singers are helped in the all-important task of
communicating the text by supertitles (usually serving translations, but
here presenting the English text). Ward's vocal writing is so difficult
that if you look away from the supertitles, you'll have a hard time
figuring out what is being sung - and that's not a diction problem.
In the Sunday afternoon cast, the husband-and-wife duo of Jason and
Michele Detwiler sang John Proctor and his wife, casting a spell during
their long, pivotal duet, with the weight of drama (and similarity of
situation) reminiscent of Fricka subjugating Wotan in the name of "what
is right." Sandra Rubalcava sang and acted memorably the central character
of Abigail Williams (whose passions and treachery make the Miller-Ward
world go around, rather than the rot in Salem society). Rubalcava, the
Detwilers, and many of their colleagues make Opera San Jose a special
place to hear still-young, already-accomplished singers on the stage.
However nasty characters the Rev. Samuel Parris and Thomas Putnam
may be, Christopher Bengochea and Douglas Nagel made them sound good,
although both were moving rather awkwardly. Susanna Uher gave a committed
performance as Mary Warren, the girl whose changes of the story and
testimony create the story's pivotal shifts. Among the score of singers,
Judith Skinner's scary Tituba, and Jesse Merlin's and Mary Anne Stanislaw's
Francis and Rebecca Nurse (the couple representing sanity and goodness)
did outstanding work. Among "good" and "bad" cardboard figures, it was
refreshing to observe (and hear) Carlos Aguilar's Rev. John Hale, acting
and singing the play's least predictable character impressively. For
performance schedule, see http://operasj.org/crucible0506.html.
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