Little Women

Alexander Elliott is John Brooke and Courtney Miller portrays Meg in Madison Opera's "Little Women."

Louisa May Alcott’s novel "Little Women" is an American classic. A popular and critical success since it was first published in 1868, generations of young people have grown up reading the wholesome adventures of sisters Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March.

The charming story is the subject of Mark Adamo’s stunning modern opera, presented by the Madison Opera in the Capitol Theater at Overture Center. The opera opened Friday night, and has its second and final show at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

In only his second composition with an orchestra, Adamo took on the daunting task of reinterpreting the quaint, often sentimental story of nineteenth century domestic life as a commission from the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. After studying many other versions, most of them unsuccessful, he decided to pare down the piece and build a dramatic through-line that focused on Jo — the headstrong and feisty sister with dreams of becoming a writer of potboiler melodramas — and her unwillingness to let go of her youthful relationships with each sister, or her beloved friend and next-door neighbor Laurie. Thus the refrain throughout the work; “Things change, Jo.”

This angle on the familiar story is built around four key moments -—Meg’s marriage to John Brooke, Laurie’s proposal to Jo, Beth’s death, and Jo’s romance with the German teacher Friedrich Bhaer. These are points of profound change when Jo realizes she cannot hold on to her idyllic childhood forever. Adamo employs a youthful quartet, dressed in sepia versions of each of the March sisters’ costumes, to signal Jo’s journeys into memory. They provide an eerie and lovely visual bridge between scenes that jump around in time as Jo reflects. He also uses snippets from Alcott’s own sensational adventure stories to illustrate Jo’s early writing, to great effect.

This interpretation of "Little Women" is not only more complicated, but more compelling than the standard treacly treatments the sisters receive. Coupled with a witty, contemporary sounding libretto and a score that combines modernism with tonal lyricism, there is nothing precious or antique about the work. It is instead vital and alive.

The universally strong leads shine as they navigate Adamo’s challenging score. Mezzo Heather Johnson, who debuted here in "Madama Butterfly" in 2008, commands the stage with her energetic portrayal of Jo. Featured in nearly every scene, she leads the audience through Jo’s conflicted journey, eventually accepting that relationships and people must evolve.

Courtney Miller, a native of Middleton, makes her debut as Meg, whose marriage causes the first serious family crisis for Jo. Miller uses her bright, clear mezzo voice to articulate her budding love for John Brooke (sung nobly by Alexander Elliott) and to urge Jo to accept that it is time for her to make her own family.

As Jo’s best friend then potential love Laurie, tenor Eric Neuville is a delight. The Wisconsin native truly embraces both the character’s playfulness and his earnest devotion to the March sisters. Neuville’s seemingly effortless vocal acrobatics are stunning throughout the piece.

Chelsea Morris, a Madison Opera Studio Artist last season, brings fragility and quiet resignation to the sickly sister Beth. Her duet with Jo while she lingers on her deathbed is one of the most beautiful and moving points in the production.

And as the German teacher Friedrich Bhaer, Craig Verm exhibits remarkable vocal prowess in several brief scenes in Act II. Serenading Jo in his native language, Verm’s gorgeous warm baritone fills the theater while introducing Jo to new authors and new possibilities for her life. (His joke about supertitles in operas also endeared him to the audience.)

In the supporting role of the sour Aunt Cecilia, strong soprano Brenda Harris lends comic relief to many of her scenes, wielding her potential inheritance, her disapproval and her sarcasm in interactions with the family.

In a pre-show lecture, members of the cast described Little Women as a “hybrid,” an opera that incorporates influences from modern musical theater, Broadway, and even movies in its structure. Stage director and scenic designer Candace Evans seems to have worked in this vein also; her staging relies on building realistic relationships between characters whose emotions are expressed honestly in subtle facial expression and small gestures in addition to their extraordinary voices.

Evans’s abstract set consists of several layers — a solid scrim behind the 20-piece Madison Symphony, a translucent scrim midstage that separates the musicians from the cast, and a few doors, windows and partial wall pieces that are flown in to create specific scenes. Projections, designed by Matthew Haber, transform blank shapes into building exteriors and decorate the March house with flowers for Meg’s wedding.

Particularly affecting were the white outlined illustrations of clocks, gloves, outdoor scenes, Jo’s frantic handwriting as she pens her short stories, and a city skyline, projected onto the fabric scrims. They washed the stage in delicate images, complementing key moments in the story. In the final scene of Little Women, lighting designer Todd Hensley sets a stark and exciting new stage for Jo as she realizes her path with Friedrich may finally move forward.

This fresh look at Alcott’s most famous work is both arresting and elegant. It will enchant newcomers to the iconic story and challenge Little Women devotees to see the seminal work in a new light.

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