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Thursday, August 04, 2016

Singing Suspicion

“I AM PROUD OF THE FACT that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.” – Pete Seeger, testifying before House Un-American Activities Committee chairman Francis E. Walter in 1955.

Brian Mulligan and Jamie Barton
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The witch-hunters in Congress recognized the subversive potential of song – and entertainment in general – and Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible” paralleled that fanaticism with the witch trials of 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. The show opened – to tepid response – even as the HUAC hearings gathered more steam. By the time Robert Ward’s operatic version of “The Crucible” won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize in music, Miller had been called in to testify and Seeger still was unable to find mainstream jobs or make TV appearances.

The Glimmerglass Festival proves its mettle by presenting an opera like “The Crucible.” It is a stirring reminder that American opera had found a compelling voice by the middle of the last century, it’s a story that remains unfortunately timely, and it features a knockout cast in a superior staging.

We don’t know why these girls are carrying on so, but the best explanation is that they’re just being teenagers. This isn’t acceptable in Puritan society, however, where a Manichean division between good and evil requires a devil ever to threaten. As the words “It’s witchcraft” were sung early in the first act, the music, which had been flirting with syncopation even before then, turned unsettling. Robert Ward’s score is itself a devilish piece of work, setting far fewer words than are in the Miller play while imbuing what remains with emotion drawn from an evolving, ever-shifting palette.

Allegiance to God is everything in this society, yet the Reverend Samuel Parris (sung by Glimmerglass Young Artist Frederick Ballentine) can’t abandon his afflicted daughter, Betty
(Mary Beth Nelson). But there’s a hierarchy of men to whom he must answer that includes the Reverend John Hale (a welcome return by bass-baritone David Pittsinger, looking uncomfortably like Severus Snape) and Judge Robert Danforth (Glimmerglass artist-in-residence Jay Hunter Morris).

Caught even more viciously in this deadly dilemma is John Proctor (the formidable baritone Brian Mulligan), whose affair with young Abigail Williams (Young Artist Ariana Wehr) will ruin him should it be exposed – and the self-serving Abigail is an agent provocateur of this mess.

Neil Patel's set for "The Crucible"
Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The simple, striking set, by Neil Patel, gives a sense of a large room, yet an array of branches hangs overhead and branches intrude through the upper-story windows, an unwelcome intrusion of Nature into a man-made and supposedly rational order of things. Ward’s music functions in a similar manner, intruding dissonant sounds and challenging rhythms into a seemingly consonant texture, and conductor Nicole Paiement led the Festival’s virtuoso orchestra in an exceptionally fine performance of it.

Although this production features a cast of eighteen, the opera tells its story through a fluid sequence of solos and twos and threes. Francesca Zambello’s direction served that process nicely, highlighting this intricate weave of action with compelling stage pictures that eased into an economy of movement.

Yet the voices were the most fabulous of all. Just when you think you can’t bear any more of the oppressive lunacy going on (such a tough piece for such a scary election season!), the top of Act Four gives us a scene with Tituba, Caribbean slave to the Parris family, and Sarah Good, an impoverished local. They’re in prison, lamenting the betrayal they feel, in a hymnlike, hypnotic duet. Drawing again from the Young Artists roster, the roles are sung by Zoie Reams and Meroë Khalia Adeeb, respectively, and they give the beauty of Offenbach’s Barcarolle, but to a far more painful effect.

Rev. Parris establishes a baseline of nervous sanity early on, given strength by Ballentine’s performance; as his doomed friend Giles Corey, tenor Chaz'men Williams-Ali also makes the most of his moments to shine.

Act Two is dominated by the Proctors – John and his wife Elizabeth (mezzo Jamie Barton). Mulligan and Barton give rich voice to the complicated progression of their scene, setting up the surprising finish to the opera, when they revisit their conflict. And soprano Maren Weinberger is downright terrifying as their servant, Mary Warren, whose change of testimony could save John’s life.

Authority figures are rich with authority here, beginning with Pittsinger’s stern Rev. Hale and culminating in Morris’s complex but chilling characterization of Judge Danforth. It’s hard to resist the temptation to play authority as petulance, and both Michael Miller (as Thomas Putnam) and Ian Koziara (as John Cheever) succumbed – forgetting that it’s the characters around you who define your power.

To the town of Salem, its witch-hunting history is a tourist attraction. American history would like to bury its legacy of witch-hunting in the 1950s, but Miller’s play and this opera help to keep the topic alive. Which, now that we’re again questioning issues of loyalty and citizenship (and always to the financial gain of the already-wealthy), means we need this cautionary message more than ever.

The Crucible
Music by Robert Ward; libretto by Bernard Stambler
Based on the play by Arthur Miller
Conducted by Nicole Paiement
Directed by Francesca Zambello
The Glimmerglass Festival, July 31
(The production runs through August 27, 2016)

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