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LAITMAN: The Scarlet Letter

CD Button Claycomb, Gawrysiak; Armstrong, Knapp, Belcher, MacKenzie; Opera Colorado Orchestra and Chorus, Pelto. Texts online. Naxos 8.669034-35 (2)

Recordins Scarlett Letter HDL 118
Easy A: Knapp and Claycomb in Colorado
© Matthew Staver
Recordings Scarlet Letter Cover 118
Critics Choice Button 1015 

THE WORLD-PREMIERE recording of this compelling new American opera, based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s cautionary tale of puritanical patriarchy, captured live in May 2016 at Opera Colorado, has much to recommend it. Hawthorne’s story is unremittingly harsh as it moves from Hester Prynne’s resolute nobility to her abuse at the hands of her community and the two men in her life. She has no good options: in dramatic terms, there’s nothing to root for. Her illicit lover, the self-absorbed, deluded preacher Arthur Dimmesdale, is no romantic hero. It takes him the entire story to do the right thing and stand by Hester, but he manages to wreck that moment (and any future they might have together) by branding his chest with an “A,” precipitating his demise. Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, is such a bully that it’s easy to see why she’s eager to believe he perished at sea. It isn’t so much that the story is in need of reinvention, satisfying though it would be to see Hester rip off that “A,” grab her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, and get out of Boston. Rather, it’s the potent reminder that its themes are still relevant, with factions in our country continuing to scapegoat women and children, that makes it so grim.

In spite of that, Lori Laitman’s score succeeds with a surging, sweeping, unapologetically tonal landscape that offers carefully etched character portraits, rapturous choral expostulations and lush orchestrations of insistently tuneful melodic motifs. David Mason’s gently rhyming libretto telescopes the plot, and the reflective moments are earned and don’t overstay their welcomes. The opening is stirring and engaging, establishing the sincerity of the townspeople’s conviction in their own rectitude. Hester’s lullaby to Pearl is refreshingly devoid of self-pity and full of maternal wonder, ending on a celestial high C. The tension-filled confrontation, during which Chillingworth poisons Dimmesdale while pretending to cure his illness, is a gripping cat-and-mouse seduction. 

As Hester, Laura Claycomb is the work’s shining center. Her soprano is supple and womanly, but its agility, especially in the upper reaches, projects an innocent purity that reaffirms Hester’s moral north star. Laitman writes riskily for her heroine, with important text couched in high-flying lines. It’s difficult to know if other, less nimble sopranos would be as intelligible, but Claycomb is always clear, affecting and sympathetic. Even before the madness of Dimmesdale’s self-dramatizing death, tenor Dominic Armstrong’s aggressive, overwrought delivery lends the tormented minister an unstable, almost villainous cast—not inappropriate, given the character’s moral ambiguity. Malcolm MacKenzie’s dignified baritone makes Chillingworth a ramrod-straight, implacable force, riven with self-loathing. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak is convincingly menacing as the unhinged local harpy, although her unwieldy vibrato makes both words and melody difficult to parse. As the town elders, tenor Kyle Knapp and baritone Daniel Belcher add a revealing layer of prurient interest as they badger Hester to name her lover. The choral singing is particularly strong, and the orchestra, led by Ari Pelto, is polished and precise. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 



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