Mark ADAMO (b. 1962)
Little Women – an opera in a prologue and two acts (1998)

Jo – Stephanie Novacek (mezzo)
Meg – Joyce DiDonato (mezzo)
Laurie – Chad Shelton (tenor)
Beth – Stacey Tappan (soprano)
Amy – Margaret Lloyd (soprano)
John Brooke – Daniel Belcher (baritone)
Friedrich Bhaer – Chen-Ye Yuan (voice)
Cecilia March – Katherine Ciesinski (mezzo)
Gideon Marche – James Maddalena (baritone)
Alma March – Gwendolyn Jones (soprano)
Mr Dashwood – Derrick Parker (voice) 
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra/Patrick Summers
Peter Webster, stage director
Christopher McCollum, set designer
Melissa Graff, costume designer
David M. Plevan, lighting designer
Directed for TV by Brian Large
rec. Cullen Theatre, Wortham Theatre Center, Houston, Texas, 17-18 March 2000.
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1; Picture format: NTSC 16:9; Region code: 0
NAXOS 2.110613 [115:00]
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, is very 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.
Kirk McElhearn
A television production of a very popular American opera, which will most likely please those who like this sort of thing.