Little Women

Mark Adamo Little Women opera to a libretto by the composer. Directed 2000 by Peter Webster at the Houston Grand Opera. Stars Stephanie Novacek, Chad Shelton, Margaret Lloyd, Stacey Tappan, Joyce DiDonato, Gwendolyn Jones, Daniel Belcher, James Maddalena, Katherine Ciesinksi, Derrick Parker, Chen-Ye Yuan, Jessica Jones, Marie Lenormand, Kathleen M. Manley, and Kerri Marcinko. Patrick Summers conducts the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra. Sets by Christopher McCollum; costumes by Melissa Graff; lighting  by David M. Plevan; directed for TV  by Brian Large. Released 2010, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio. Grade: A-

In recent years I've listened to scores of HDVD operas in foreign languages or British English. What a relief to get one sung in American tongue! Still, I used the English subtitles because a lot of the vocabulary of teen-age girls and their family members in 1865 is new to me. Alas, even though this disc is region free and is being offered all over the world for sale, it has no subtitles in languages other than English. A suppose Naxos was uncertain how much to invest in this title. It's a prime example of Americana; as such, it might not have enough appeal outside the U.S.A to pay for the expense of foreign language subtitles.

Now I'm a guy; as such, I never read the Little Women novel or saw any of the movies, etc. Nor was I looking forward to viewing subject title. So I'm qualified to now to say: it's a great story that could be set anywhere in any era and will probably keep you on the verge of tears much of time. So I'm glad now I finally got my dip into Louisa May Alcott.

How good is the opera? Mark Adamo had the story given to him, and then he wrote both the libretto and the music. I think his libretto is terrific and drives the opera forward well. The music is more than adequate by the standards of today even if it has no tunes I can remember now. Because the music was written for a small orchestra, I think the opera may be staged in smaller houses and student settings for some time to come.

How good is this HDVD of Little Women? It could turn out that this recording from the original production will have a longer life that the opera itself. Fortunately, Brian Large was recruited to direct this for television. The 2000 shoot looks surprisingly good today. True, the colors are faded by 2011 standards, but the soft, slightly sepia tone fits well with the era portrayed in the story. The limitations on Large's gear are readily apparent when Large is required to shoot into a shadowed part of the stage and the picture immediately dissolves into harsh graininess. But most the time, Large stays out of trouble, and his framing, editing, and use of close ups is splendid. The recording of the singing and the tiny orchestra is warm, close, natural, and satisfying.

But now let's get to the real reason why I think this good recording of an obscure new opera may have a long life: all the members of the cast had their hearts 100% committed to this production and its recording. The directing and acting is so good, you could almost drop the music and present this as a play. This is not to belittle the quality of the singing---all of which is very high. But rarely do you get as fine a combination of singing and acting as here. And I'll carry this theme forward one more step: I believe that Stephanie Novacek's performance of Jo in this recording does the best job of combining singing and acting that can be seen in any of the opera HDVDs that have been published to date. This work by Novecek, as captured by Large, is by itself ample reason to buy this disc. I give this title the grade of "A-". That's the best I can do for Little Women in view of the small scale of the orchestration and the lack of foreign language subtitles. Written March 2010 by Henry McFadyen Jr.