Sydney Conservatorium of Music, 11 October 2014
A childhood favourite
I was keen to see this performance of Little Women by the Opera and Vocal students at the Sydney Conservatorium as I (to my shame) hadn’t been to see one of their productions before and this was a favourite book of mine. I probably read it about 20 times as a girl and then again recently, when it struck me as very ahead of its time in some ways and almost cloying in others. This operatic version by American composer Mark Adamo, who also wrote the libretto, focuses mainly on the relationship between Jo and Laurie and mostly deals with the second half of the novel and the first part of the sequel Good Wives.
Like the book, the opera is told entirely from Jo’s point of view. Anna McDougall, in that role, was on stage almost the entire two and a bit hours – mostly singing but sometimes observing her sisters’ romantic ‘nonsense’. She was superb, both as an actress and singer, as she expressed Jo’s anguish and independence as she tries in vain to cling to the life she knows, whilst everyone around her tries to tell her ‘things change, Jo’. The sisters also had big roles: sweet and sensible Meg (Jessica Westcott), tragic Beth (Audrey Gabor) and somewhat vain but artistic Amy (Maia Andrews) all perfectly capturing their characters. Both their solos and ensembles were beautifully sung.
The supporting cast of suitors, family and friends were excellent too. Particularly notable was Alex Knight as the potentially rather dull and earnest character John Brooke, who had one of the night’s best moments. His line was just “I love you”, but it was a melismatic fortissimo tour de force which tickled the audience’s collective funny bone. Jermaine Chau was terrific as the formidable old tyrant Aunt March, forever trying to manipulate her relatives by bestowing or withholding promises of inherited fortune.
Two musical styles
Musically the opera is a blend of two musical styles, a contemporary form of recitative and a more traditional arioso style where the dissonances resolved into a more conventional harmony at cadence points such as in the ‘ours, the hours’ sections, representing the family’s favourite marriage vows. I found the more dissonant recitativo style more successful, as the more conventional sections became rather predictable; like the novel itself, the music seems to belong to two different worlds.