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The Scarlet Letter
Kyle Erdos Knapp (John Wilson) and Laura Claycomb in Opera Colorado's production of Lori Laitman's The Scarlet Letter
Photo by Matthew Staver
OPERA COLORADO'S POSTPONEMENT of the professional premiere of Lori Laitman's The Scarlet Letter, originally announced for the company’s 2013 season wasn't all that surprising: the company has long been suffering from financial problems, even though general director Greg Carpenter never shook off his optimism or enthusiasm. At the unveiling of Laitman's work on May 7 Carpenter proudly told a full house that the “long journey” toward staging the work had ended.
As the final curtain fell after the two-and-a-half hour production, the crowd did stand and cheer—though, truth be told, there wasn't all that much to applaud. Hawthorne's novel, which focuses on the dreary, stifling world of Puritan America in the mid-1600s, yielded a similarly dreary, stifling opera. Despite Laitman's unblushing adherence to tonality, sprinkling in some pleasant melodies here and there, the composer could not overcome the inescapable deadliness of her subject.
Erhard Rom's ominous, gray-walled set and Terese Wadden's similarly colorless costuming underscored that fact. Aside from the small red Bibles clutched by the townsfolk, this production's single moment of visual color came at the start of Act II, when the rear wall displayed a giant projection of green leaves, serving as a backdrop for the opera's most natural and engaging scene. Here, Hester Prynne— forced to wear the Scarlet Letter—and the angst-filled minister Dimmesdale met in a forest, and at last shared their forbidden love. Laitman's occasionally shimmering score, capably delivered by the well-rehearsed orchestra led by Opera Colorado music director Ari Pelto, brought a much-needed lightness to the proceedings. Laitman take full advantage of those moments of high drama, such as the unison chorus of judgmental Bostonians aiming their Bibles at Prynne, and the unrestrained taunting of Dimmesdale by the town witch, Mistress Hibbons. The latter served as a fine showpiece for Margaret Gawrysiak, whose angry tirade called up memories of Azucena and Ulrica. The mezzo's powerful voice contrasted with the more muted singing of Laura Claycomb. Claycomb, who had stepped in a few months earlier as Hester Prynne when Elizabeth Futral withdrew before rehearsals began, impressed with her “Summertime”-like lullaby to her infant child, Pearl. She successfully managed a string of unexpectedly stratospheric high notes, effects commonly heard among Laitman's fine collection of art songs. Claycomb's light soprano, however, failed to fill the Ellie Caulkins Opera House's cavernous expanse. Similarly, she fell short in projecting an engaging personality—quite surprising, considering the obvious sympathy we should feel for the unfairly shunned Prynne.
Sharing the blame for this lack of emotional connection was director Beth Greenberg, who maintained a slow, deliberate pace while too often settling for stiff, clichéd melodrama. Also unable to raise the temperature was librettist David Mason, one-time poet laureate of Colorado. His text was dominated less by revealing moments than by predictable pronouncements. His use of rhyming couplets was clever most of the time, while too many of those rhymes seemed forced and self-conscious (“Prynne” and “sin” came up regularly).
The two male leads proved effective vocally and dramatically. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, as Prynne's ever-angry husband Chillingworth, produced a confident baritone and a dynamic presence, despite being too often instructed to limp awkwardly and aimlessly in the background. As Dimmesdale, tenor Dominic Armstrong sang with impeccable control and focus, smartly balancing a secret love for Prynne against his self-righteous pose as the moral leader of the community. After all the disappointments of the past five years, Opera Colorado should be cheered for its commitment to mount its first-ever premiere. Whether Laitman's work will have legs remains to be seen. Opera Colorado’s live recording of the opera is scheduled for release on Naxos in 2017. —Marc Shulgold