|Madalyn Luna and Samuel White (photo by Carol Rosegg for Manhattan School of Music)|
Sometimes operas can be successfully updated or even changed to a different locale. And sometimes the changes strike us a just plain wrong-headed. In 1839, when Emmeline (possibly Emeline in real life) was sent as a 13 year old child to work in a factory in Lowell, Massachusetts, society was different. Her story tells us something about the effect on families created by the Industrial Revolution. It also tells us something about the social mores of the day.
It is 180 years later and we are in the middle of an Information Revolution with very different effects on society, its mores, and the economy. We have child labor laws. We have birth control. We have Planned Parenthood. We have means by which unwed mothers and adoptive children can find one another. A man who never learned to read is almost unheard of.
This is what was going through our mind during Manhattan School of Music's production of Tobias Picker's 1996 opera Emmeline which we saw last night. The performances were stellar, particularly that of the totally committed Madalyn Luna who created the role of the tragic heroine. According to Judith Rossner's book from which J.D. McClatchy's libretto was derived, the poor child was torn from her impoverished family and put to work in the mills to support her family with its numerous children.
Hungry for love, she fell for the blandishments of the boss' son-in-law and got pregnant. Her child was taken from her sight unseen and adopted into a family. Dismissed from the mill she returned to her family where she took care of others for a couple of decades. Unwilling to marry for wealth, she fell for a young man from the Midwest who married her. Her past came back to haunt her in a particularly tragic and mythic fashion.
In order to make this 19th c. story "relevant", Director Thaddeus Strassberger has forced it into a Procrustean bed. Toward the end he has religious bigots carrying posters and signs about "Sin" and "Pro-Life". Yes, we still have pockets of belief like that in the United States but it was wrong-headed to try to force this story to comment upon that. Yes, we still have men in power abusing young women but that's a different opera.
In spite of our disappointment in the production, we enjoyed this "play with music". The music was quite pleasant, particularly in the instrumental interludes, but the vocal lines did not hold our interest. The only melodies we heard were when the excellent chorus sang "Rock of Ages" and also when we heard riffs of a folk song which we couldn't quite identify.
Tenor Samuel White has a good sized instrument which he used well in the role of Matthew Gurney. His acting was persuasive as well. He had a believable connection with Ms. Luna who was more believable as a 13 year old than as a woman in her mid-30's.
Baritone Laureano Quant, whom we just enjoyed as Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles, was also believable as Mr. Maguire, the "vile seducer". His singing was just as fine as it was as Zurga but more difficult to appreciate in English, especially with the wandering vocal lines in the score.
Elisabeth Harris turned in a fine performance as the cold-hearted Aunt Hannah, and Gabriella Chea was winning as the warm-hearted landlady/housemother Mrs. Bass.
Kelly Singer filled the role of Sophia, a friend of Emmeline, and did it well. Yi Yang portrayed Emmeline's weak father. Emilyn Badgeley was scarily convincing as Emmeline's spiteful younger sister. Robert Ellsworth Feng was the fire and brimstone preacher.
This same excellent cast will be performing on Saturday; an equally fine cast (several members of which we can vouch for) will be performing on Friday and Sunday.
Paul Tate dePoo III's Scenic Design was believable and quite inventive for the factory scene.
The chorus, directed by Jackson McKinnon was in fine condition and the young musicians of the orchestra did their usual excellent work under the baton of George Manahan, giving Mr. Picker's score a fine reading.
(c) meche kroop