Based on the hugely popular novel by Louisa May Alcott, this opera
tells the story of four sisters during the American Civil War.
Adamo shifts this to the post-war period. Growing up in Concord,
Alcott was strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist movement.
Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a close friend of both Ralph Waldo
Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa May spent much time in
Emerson’s study/library reading his books. She saw the struggles
for women’s rights that many Transcendentalists espoused. While
familiar to Americans – this book is often read as a children’s
book – it may be less familiar to those in other countries. Composer
Mark Adamo says that “Jo’s journey called to mind the Buddhist
suggestion that a lesson unlearned will present itself over and
over again, in slightly different guise, until at last the pilgrim
makes progress and grasps the point.” Alcott would tell the continuing
story of the four sisters as they try to have their own lives
in several sequels.
One can see from the very first shots that this is not a film
of an opera, but rather an opera performed and directed especially
for television. Shots are narrow and tight, the stage is small,
and the characters seem restricted in their movements because
of the small stage. This makes the performance look less like
an opera than a Broadway musical. In the first scene of Act I,
the stage, intended to be the attic of the March sisters’ house,
small, but in the second scene, the stage is much
larger, and the space gives the characters more room to move around,
and some of the shots are wider. However, only the one set used
in the second scene, and one later scene, are truly airy; all
the others are small and seem constricted.
The approach of the filming remains that of television, where
tight shots are the norm, and there are few chances to appreciate
the stage and set design. This divorces the characters from their
surroundings, and minimizes any feeling one might have of the
characters in a broader landscape.
Musically, I guess you have to like this kind of thing to appreciate
it. To my ears, it has that tic of modern opera of having too
many non-melodic and monodic phrases, often dissonant. There’s
something about this type of music that ranges from monody to
leaping atonal phrases and caterwauling that grates on my ears,
yet this seems to be a very popular opera. Nevertheless, there
are sections of poignant lyricism, which contrast sharply with
the work’s mostly atonal stance. Would that Adamo had focused
more on the lyrical aspects and less on the almost serialist body
of the opera.
While I’m not the best judge of the music, therefore, it is fair
to say that the performers are all top-notch, especially Stephanie
Novacek and Joyce DiDonato. I question the choice of Derrick Parker
as Mr. Dashwood, however; not that he’s not a fine singer, but
given the context, a black newspaper editor seems unlikely. Remember,
the novel takes place during the Civil War; in addition, Alcott
does not say that Dashwood is black, which she certainly would
have. Alcott was a staunch abolitionist, and if it were possible
that such a character be black, it is likely that she would have
chosen to do so. That said, the poetic license of opera allows
such things, and so be it.
In the end, my main criticism of the production is that it tries
to be something other than an opera; too many tight shots and
close-ups put the characters in a spotlight that seems a bit odd.
It could be, of course, that one is used to operas filmed as operas,
and that this approach, which is unusual, will shock by its intimacy.
The camera work is not very interesting, because of the decision
to focus too intensely on individual characters at the expense
of their relationships to others. One exception is the scene where
Beth is on her death-bed; the constrained camera stance intensifies
the anxiety of the characters gathered around her in her last
hours. The close ups of Beth and Jo are quite emotional.
In a way, it’s surprising that it took so long for this work to
be released on DVD. Filmed in 2000, and broadcast on American
television in 2001, it took nearly ten years for it to become
available on disc. Given its relative popularity – it is frequently
performed in the United States – it is likely to be a good seller
for a contemporary opera.