When Charles Roe, the voice professor and director at the University of Arizona’s Opera Department decided to mount Mark Adamo’s Little Women, a piece Roe readily admits to having fallen in love with on first hearing, he may have had some second thoughts about producing the opera but certainly not with Adamo’s lucid, lyrical arcs of tender melodies the composer dotted throughout his score. And since Adamo also wrote the text, the composer was able to connect the many threads of emotion thereby making more substantial character studies of the four young women growing into maturity during the American Civil War, than Louisa May Alcott was able to do in her very poular novel. Perhaps it was just these two artistic accomplishments that had given Roe pause, for he recognized the opera would not only need singers who could handle Adamo’s challenging vocal leaps but they needed to cope with the quick emotional changes the composer expects from his characters. Well, the director needn’t have reflected too long for he struck gold with the vocal talents he had on hand. In fact, if there was one quality that came to the forefront of this production, it was the singing. Even in roles that might be considered secondary to the principals, Meg, Amy, Beth and Jo, there was plenty of vocal strength and beauty to go around fulfilling Adamo’s intented musical warmth.
Near the end of Act One when Meg and John Brook approach her parents asking to use their wedding vows as their own, Adamo wrote a duet filled with musical reminiscences of Alma and Gideon’s wedding day and their continuing struggle to keep their vows alive. Ashleigh Guida and Ken Ryals expressed their mutual love with careful and graceful tones as Guida’s rich mezzo covered the piece with just the right touch of vocal persuasion. And in Act Two, baritone Nathan Krueger as Professsor Friedrich Bhaer brought both a deep clarity and a gentle lyricism to his aria in which he professes his growing love for an insecure Jo trying to find her place in the world.
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These two reflective musical moments help carry the larger, more emotional aspects of Adamo’s opera that Roe and Thomas Cockrell, his musical director, worked so artfully to create.
It was the four voices of the March sisters, however, with their contrasting vocal textures that carried the day providing a musical continuity that dovetailed so effortlessly into the Little Women’s finale. Each singer brought her own vocal interpretation to her character. Kara Harris’s Meg, elegant of manner yet emotionally connected particularly in her well-sung aria showing Meg’s awakening love for Ian Sidden’s amusing and proper John Brook. Chloé Hunter gave Beth a haunting sound covered with sadness but embued it with a rejuvenating passion in her final goodbye to her beloved Jo. Roe found in Kathryn Mueller, a perfect Amy, whose high flying tessitura was filled with the right touch of naiveté in her hidden longings for everybody’s favorite boy, Laurie.
But it was with Martina Chylíková’s Jo, –the most demanding role in the opera–that the work rested. Her Jo was vocally secure and clearly delineated; there are however, so many dimensions to Jo’s character that need to be expressed. Her emotions constantly fly and converge, one minute she’s loving, the next she’s angry, again she feels rejected but always loyal to her family. Chylíková’s interpretation arrived at it’s best moment at the end of Act One, the high point of Adamo’s work. The scene is set in counterpoint: on one side of the stage we revisit Alma and Gideon’s wedding vows but now with Meg and John Brook in a beautifully expressed quartet which underscored the emotional confrontation on the other side between Laurie’s outburst of his love for Jo and her incredulity and fear on hearing of his still unfulfilled passion. Here Chylíková’s Jo hit her best stride reacting to Todd Strange’s Laurie- the tenor’s total commitment both vocally and dramatically put the audience right into Jo’s and Laurie’s heart-breaking conflict. At other times, Chylíková couldn’t find the emotional depth Jo required to bring a total picture to the role. But Roe, did not allow any dramatic shortcomings to interfere with the poignancy and vocal luster the four women brought to their final quartet.
Adamo places the final scene in the March’s attic where the opera began. The opera starts with Jo recalling her life with her sisters, her personal battle within herself in refusing to accept the onset of adulthood and the anguish she has experienced in insisting that the sisters’ lives were perfect in their youth. And now in the final scene, as Jo begins to accept the reality of time passing and the changes it brings, she imagines Meg, Beth and Amy there with her once again as they were in their younger and more carefree days. Here Adamos’ text has them talk about their “half-enchanted family, We’ll never be again,” set to a nostalgic-laced harmony that was made even more radiant by Thomas Cockrell’s conducting which supported the cast every measure of the way. The big winner in this production was the audience who carried with them a lasting musical memory.