Feminism viewed through the prism of Victorian literature seems so quaint today. Composer Allan Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens picked up one of the story lines from George Eliot's 1872 classic Middlemarch, appended "In Spring" to the title, and built a two hour chamber opera which premiered last week at Z Space, presented by Composer Inc.. They focused on Dorothea, who marries the older Mr. Casaubon, thinking he'll involve her in his intellectual pursuits. Help me help you she merely begs, far from demanding front row on the seating chart. Casaubon spurns her requests, but has the good taste of passing away, offering Dorothea a mulligan. However, it has a poison pill and per a codicil to his will, she'll lose Casaubon's money if she re-marries with young Ladislaw. She tries first to help the poor with her heritage, then realizes it's too complicated to be an independent woman who accomplishes, you know, stuff. She chooses love over money and follows Ladislaw, where she does not have to be too practical. Middlemarch (the opera) does not advance a radical agenda, but rather revels in looking back at Dorothea's struggle with a gentle, humourous and slightly paternalistic outlook.
This is conveyed through the sets, which present vividly, with relatively few elements, a Victorian interior or a town hall meeting, under a glass-less green house metallic structure. No ceiling to break there, it's actually supposed to visualize how plant-like the life of Dorothea is supposed to be: be pretty and make no noise. Projections by Jeremy Knight on the back wall add depth and a rich background to the decors, by Matthew Antaky. The costumes were kickstarted, and they look the period. Thanks to crowdfunding for helping bring this to the stage.
The music also conveys a sense of restraint, partly owing to the small scale of the chamber orchestra. Shearer can write a compelling accompaniment to a vocal line with only bass and percussion. While this prevents huge orchestral storms, it makes for an intimate setting, and the modern score, atonal and with gnarly chromaticisms, succeeds most in the scenes where Dorothea and her sister Celia share a jewel box's content. Mostly, the vocal lines declaim in an evenly paced sprechstimme, alternating between singers as if it was spoken dialogue. When it shifts into the rare lyrical duet (as in the first encounter of Ladislaw and Dorothea upon their return in England from Rome), it is delightful.
Even when dealing with its most revolutionary events (say, social unrest of the working class), the take is more humorous. It is the orchestra who embody the rioting crowd, and heckle the politician at the podium from the on-stage pit. While it is masterly written, the back and forth between the singer and stage and the musicians' interjection effortlessly natural, there is no hint of darkness, it is more fun than ominous. Maybe George Eliot is more optimistic than Dickens. We would have liked lower lows and higher highs, or even a bit more variety in the pacing. All musicians (conducted by Jonathan Khuner) were excellent, and short of naming all eleven of them, we'll mention Tod Brody's lyricism on the flute, Mckenzie Camp's decisive interventions on percussion and as a villager, Karen Rosenak's exactness on piano and Jon Keigwin's steadiness on bass.
The cast is first rate: as Dorothea, SFCM graduate Sara Duchovnay carries the opera on her shoulders. She's off stage for only a few scenes, and is the center of attention most of the time, with the most dramatic arias. Philip Skinner has sung with the SF Opera since 1985 and he perfectly captured the vanity of Casaubon. Eugene Brancoveanu has been on the big stages as well, and you could tell by the deep heft of his voice. He relishes opportunities to perform locally in off-beat roles for new music and smaller ensembles though, and we wished his part had been more meaty. Michael Mendelsohn provided well timed comic relief with dog poop jokes and burping drunkedness, and Tonia D'Amelio was a breath of fresh air as a brainless Celia (who still gets the final word). And Daniel Curran brought a youthful energy and a lot of enthusiasm to the part of Will.
Adapting a classic, using a small cast and orchestra, with a pleasant-yet-modern score and staying at a safe distance from controversial subjects, it is a piece that could be staged again in conservatories and universities and on smaller scene, and we wish it a similar trajectories as Mark Adamo's Little Women.