Monday, August 08, 2016

Glimmerglass Festival, 2016, Day 3: Enemy aliens

Rev. Parris discovers Tituba and the girls
Photo: Karli Cadel
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Our three days at the Glimmerglass Festival concluded on July 31, 2016, with an exemplary production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1961 operatic version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.  I reviewed this for Classical Voice North America, but due to space constraints on their web site, I was obliged to edit my original review.  Here is the full-length version.

In a 1989 New York Times article reflecting on his 1953 play The Crucible, Arthur Miller wrote, "Political movements are always trying to position themselves against the unknown-vote for me and you're safe." The relevance to contemporary politics could hardly be more obvious.

Rev. Hale leads the villagers in a hymn
Photo: Karli Cadel
In both the play and the opera, fear stalks the streets of Salem Village. Many of the villagers are afraid of the land grab schemes of the wealthy Thomas Putnam, while his wife Ann is afraid that her numerous miscarriages are the work of supernatural forces. Reverend Parris, meanwhile, fears for the health of this daughter Betty, who lies in bed with a mysterious illness.

The tensions and resentments in the village come to a head when Parris discovers his niece Abigail Williams and other village girls dancing in the woods with the Barbadian slave Tituba. Pressured by the witchcraft expert Reverend Hale and the girls, Tituba confesses to witchcraft. As the villagers pray over Betty, it appears that Tituba's confession and their hymns have worked and Hale declares Satan's hold broken.

John Proctor pleads with Elizabeth
Photo: Karli Cadel
But Abigail and the other girls have tasted power for the first time in their repressed lives, and soon they're staging regular demonstrations of "possession," accusing others in the village of supernatural persecution. A special court is convened to hear the accusations, and eventually Danforth, the Deputy Governor, is brought in to run the hearings, in which the increasingly wild accusations of the girls are presumed to be true and the accused are presumed guilty. Worse yet, as farmer Giles Corey discovers, accusing the girls of fraud is considered an offense all by itself. Before long, dozens of citizens are in prison, awaiting execution and, for those who refuse to confess and name others involved in the fictitious conspiracy, torture.

Or, as we now call it, enhanced interrogation.

Judge Danforth hears Mary Warren's testimony
Photo: Carli Kadel
The list of accused includes Elizabeth Proctor whose husband, John, had a clandestine affair with Abigail. Abigail thinks getting Elizabeth executed will bring John back to her, but he's determined to repair his marriage. Unable to convince Abigail to recant her accusation, he confesses to the affair in court to expose Abigail's fakery, only to find it discounted and accused of witchcraft himself.

In the end the case against Elizabeth collapses when Abigail steals money from Parris and runs away while the village begins to openly rebel against Danforth's court. Proctor is offered a last chance to avoid the gallows if he signs a confession but he refuses to blacken his name, inflict shame on his sons, and give Danforth the ammunition he needs to justify his reign of terror. As he is led to the gallows, Hale pleads with Elizabeth to get him to sign, but she refuses. “He has found his name and his goodness now", she says. "God forbid I take it form him.”

Abigail and the girls are "posessed"
Photo: Karli Cadel
The libretto by Bernard Stambler considerably shortens and streamlines Miller's play, which was inspired in part by the modern-day witch hunts of the late Senator McCarthy, but leaves intact the searing indictment of the power of mob mentality and the moral corruption of politicians who feed on it. Today the mob is on the Internet and social media, but the intellectually disreputable process is the same.

When The Crucible had its premiere at New York City Opera in 1961, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg essentially praised the Robert Ward score with faint damns, calling it "noncommittal music" that "did little to intensify the characters on state, the moods they were feeling, or the situations in which they found themselves."

Proctor is accused by Danforth
Photo: Karli Cadel
Time has not judged his judgment well. While it's certainly true that nobody is likely to leave a production of The Crucible whistling the tunes, it's hard to square Mr. Schonberg's criticisms with what I heard here. This is a score of tremendous narrative power, high drama, and often-unexpected beauty. A scene cut from the original play but restored here, in which Proctor pleads with Abigail to forget him and spare Elizabeth's life, is wonderfully lyrical, calling to mind Gershwin's "Bess, You is My Woman Now", while the trial scenes have real visceral impact.

It may be true that Mr. Ward, who died just a few years ago, did not have the distinctive harmonic or melodic style of (say) Copland or Bernstein, but if this score is any indication, he had a sure sense of what works on stage. He is quoted as saying that if you can't play it or sing it, you shouldn't write it. He clearly followed his own advice here.

Marry Warren warns Elizabeth
Photo: Karli Cadel
The cast for this production is an impressive one, with powerful, accurate voices and credible acting skills. Leading the pack is baritone Brian Mulligan as John Proctor, with a big voice and dramatic stage presence. This is a key role, requiring plenty of vocal stamina along with the ability to make the character's crisis of conscience believe able. Mr. Mulligan has both. The women's roles are critical in The Crucible and director Francesca Zambello has assembled an impressive ensemble to fill them. Mezzo Jamie Barton, whose warm voice distinguished her Jane Seymour in Chicago Lyric's Anna Bolena back in 2014, racks up another success as the conflicted Elizabeth Proctor. Soprano Ariana Wehr is a credibly conniving Abigail, mezzo Zoie Reams commands attention as Tituba, and soprano Maren Weinberger is a compelling Mary Warren, who tries to tries to expose the fraud of Abigail and the other girls, only to succumb to peer pressure in the end. All three singers are part of the company's Young Artists program, which gives you some idea of how strong it must be.

Abigail pleads with Proctor to flee with her
Photo: Karli Cadel
Members of the Young Artists program turn in some very mature performances of the male roles as well. That includes, but is by no means limited to, baritone Michael Miller as the greedy Thomas Putnam; tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali as Giles Corey, whose attempt to expose the girls' fakery results in his own death; and tenor Frederick Ballentine as Rev. Parris. Among the older men, bass-baritone David Pittsinger stands out as Rev. Hale, whose regret is too little and too late, as does tenor Jay Hunter Morris (an Artist in Residence this year) as the arrogant Danforth, whose declaration that he would "draw and quarter ten thousand men" to preserve order could have come from the current presidential campaign.

All the performances in this large cast are very strong, in fact. You can find a complete list at the production web page. In a discussion before the opera, Ms. Zambello noted that she had intentionally used "color blind" casting to create an ensemble that would look like America today in all its diversity. It's a valid artistic decision, but I'm not sure that works with a piece so firmly rooted in the 1690s. That's a minor point, though. Her direction is otherwise as clear and theatrically on target as usual.

Canadian conductor Nicole Paiement leads the wonderfully polished orchestra in a sympathetic and robust reading of the score. Glimmerglass's purpose-built theater has a good-sized orchestra pit and excellent acoustics, allowing every note of the music to come through clearly.

The Glimmerglass Festival production of The Crucible runs through August 27 in rotating repertory with four other shows. For more information, visit the company web site. At a time when the forces of fear and scapegoating are once again abroad in the land, this is surely a "must see."

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