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Review: Pittsburgh Opera has a winner in its cozy, intense 'Little Women'

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, 12:57 p.m.
Corrie Stallings (left) and Adelaide Boedecker in a scene from Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Little Women.'
David Bachman Photography
Corrie Stallings (left) and Adelaide Boedecker in a scene from Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Little Women.'
(From left) Claudia Rosenthal, Leah de Gruyl (seated), Brian Vu and Laurel Semerdjian star in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Little Women.'
David Bachman Photography
(From left) Claudia Rosenthal, Leah de Gruyl (seated), Brian Vu and Laurel Semerdjian star in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Little Women.'
From left: Corrie Stallings, plays Jo, Laurel Semerdjian, plays Meg, Adelaide Boedecker, plays Beth, and Claudia Rosenthal, plays Amy, in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Little Women”.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
From left: Corrie Stallings, plays Jo, Laurel Semerdjian, plays Meg, Adelaide Boedecker, plays Beth, and Claudia Rosenthal, plays Amy, in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “Little Women”.
Corrie Stallings and Matthew Scollin star in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Little Women.'
David Bachman Photography
Corrie Stallings and Matthew Scollin star in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Little Women.'

The small theater at the Creative and Performing Arts High School, Downtown, is a perfect environment in which to experience “Little Women” by Mark Adamo, the appealing contemporary opera based on Louisa May Alcott's famous 19th-century novel.

Pittsburgh Opera's new production of Adamo's work opened Jan. 23 at CAPA and proved a compelling vision of the piece thanks to an excellent cast and chamber ensemble, superb preparation and conducting by Glenn Lewis, and imaginative staging by Crystal Manich.

It's astonishing that “Little Women” was Adamo's first opera, for which he wrote the libretto as well as music, because its mastery is pervasive and its sophistication unobtrusive. The distillation of the lengthy novel into a two-hour opera is brilliant on many levels ­— from the clarity of the overarching theme of loss and the passage of time to the distinction and development of each of the main characters.

Adamo's musical score is individual and eclectic, employing various musical languages to suit the nature of the situation he's bringing to life. The music expressing the characters' feelings is apt to be mainly tonal. Narrative music, in which most conflicts occur, is well served by the composer's chromaticism and 12-tone harmonies. Best of all, the colors of character and narrative music are wonderfully fluid.

“Little Women” is an opera in which the moment is always well served.

The cast is led by the four March sisters — Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg — growing up in Concord, Mass., after the Civil War. Their parents are not wealthy, but comfortable enough to have a large library and piano. Each child is encouraged to develop her gifts.

Mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings offered a thoroughly convincing and sympathetic portrayal of Jo, which was especially impressive because of the character's complexity. Stallings' singing easily encompassed not only the wide range of her notes, but also her character's strong will as much as her emerging doubts and personal growth.

Stallings' Act I aria “Perfect As We Are,” which expresses Jo's feelings about her sisters growing up, was a highpoint of the evening.

Jo's first big challenge in the opera, and a loss to which she must adapt, is Meg's engagement and marriage to John Brooke. It's not just the four sisters anymore. Mezzo Laurel Semerdjian gave a beautifully grounded account of Meg, and employed her richly hued voice most effectively in her aria, “Things Change, Jo.”

Baritone Brian Vu gave a strong performance as Brooke, handling high tessitura with assurance and finding the strength to deal with Meg's challenging family.

Soprano Adelaide Boedecker's big moment is Beth's death scene, in which she must help Jo accept the unpleasant reality. Her line was finely drawn, and her acting conveyed Meg's generosity and weariness.

Claudia Rosenthal was persuasive as Amy, the smallest role of the four sisters, but dramatically crucial because she marries Laurie. Jo and Laurie were closed friends but she had rejected his suggestion that they become romantic. Adam Bonanni didn't need his full voice to fill the CAPA theater, and sang with beauty and nuanced drama.

Kara Cornell and Daniel Teadt were winning as the parents, while Leah de Gruyl was intense as Aunt Cecilia.

Finally, Matthew Scollin made the most of his role as Friedrich Bhaer, an older German man to whom Jo responds at the end of the opera. He sings her a poem by Friedrich Goethe, “Kennst du das Land” (Do you know the land), as an example of real art. Then he sings it again in English after Jo says she wishes she knew what the words meant.

The staging was mainly quite effective in adapting to the small space of the stage. The costumes were realistic to the time of the novel.

A considerable part of the opera takes place in the attic of the March family home, and it's fitting symbolism that the steps to the attic are oversized books. The one problematic part of the staging involved the furniture hanging above the stage, intended to convey elements of memory falling into place. The hanging props were a step too far from realism. At a minimum, they looked surrealistic, but they also appeared silly.

Glenn Lewis led a confident performance of a score that is more difficult than it might sound. He was as attentive to indicating cutoffs as entrances, and balanced the singers and instrumentalists very well. His pacing felt apt at every moment.

Overall, Pittsburgh Opera has a winner in its cozy yet intense production of “Little Women.”

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Little Women” will be repeated at 7 p.m. Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29, and 2 p.m. Jan. 31 at Creative and Performing Arts High School, 111 Ninth St., Downtown. Admission is $50 to $55. Details: 412-456-6666 or pittsburghopera.org

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