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Worth, Brewer and Zabala in the world premiere of Doubt at Minnesota Opera
© Michal Daniel 2013
Minnesota Opera's admirable New Works Initiative — a multi-year, $7 million effort to "invigorate the operatic repertoire" — drew notice last season when Silent Night netted a Pulitzer Prize for composer Kevin Puts (who was promptly recommissioned). And though one can hardly expect that particular lightning to strike twice, Douglas Cuomo's Doubt, the Twin Cities company's latest premiere (seen Jan. 26), proved fully worthy of the care and resources lavished upon it.
Set in a working-class Bronx neighborhood in 1964, Doubt gives flesh to its title, recounting a nun's tireless campaign to oust a popular priest, who may or may not be a pedophile, from the parish in which she is grammar-school principal. Like the eponymous play (2005) and screenplay (2008), the libretto is the work of John Patrick Shanley. In his first foray into opera, Shanley has fashioned a powerful but sometimes problematic text that, while rich in the expanded moments on which the medium thrives, too often leads Cuomo to write long stretches of earthbound arioso. (Though extensively workshopped and previewed, Doubt seemed a tad overweight at its premiere; a few excisions, especially in Act I, would sharpen its focus.)
Arioso notwithstanding, Cuomo's music has tensile strength, a distinctively American voice — one hears strains of Copland and Adams, Bernstein and jazz — and a fresh orchestral palette. (His writing for percussion is strikingly imaginative.) Often working inconspicuously, even subliminally, he is a master of the fleeting impression. His timing, comic and otherwise, is exemplary; his characteristic melismas are acutely expressive.
Cast and production were well-nigh ideal. Christine Brewer, taking time out from a busy Wagner year, brought Wagnerian heft and poignancy to the role of Sister Aloysius, the starchy but vulnerable principal, whose seeming certitude dissolves into doubt. Hers was an incandescent portrayal of an elusive character, manifesting the mettle of a great performer.
Baritone Matthew Worth, the sole adult male principal in this opera, captured the ambiguousness of the suspect Father Flynn and made his every word tell. Adriana Zabala touchingly enacted Sister James's loss of innocence. Their Act II "garden scene," a sort of surrogate love duet, yielded goose-bump moments.
Twelve-year-old Julius Andrews was affecting as Donald Miller, the boy at the heart of the action. Denyce Graves, returning to the Minnesota company more than two decades after a still-remembered debut as Carmen, was searing as Donald's mother, a strong woman with her own moral calculus.
Conductor Christopher Franklin guided singers and orchestra sure-handedly through Cuomo's score. Stage director Kevin Newbury moved people and props around Robert Brill's flexible set with his customary finesse; Japhy Weideman's lighting was almost too beautiful.
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