“The Crucible,” the operatic setting by Robert Ward of Arthur Miller’s stunning play, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and although it has seen numerous productions around the world, this past weekend marked its premiere performance in Sarasota. The composer, who will be 94 in September, was here to see it.
Certainly one of the greatest 20th-century American operas, “The Crucible” takes Miller’s play to a new level. In fact, the playwright once told Ward that he liked the opera better than his original play. He knew stagecraft, and, in Ward’s setting, the impact of the Salem witch trials and hangings becomes so powerful the opera stands musically and dramatically with the greatest of works.
From the moment the curtain rises, the Ward/Miller partnership hurtles toward us, like a speeding avalanche, to the inevitable destruction of the lives of people we come to care about. The (feigned) illnesses of a couple of children snowball into horrifying witch hunts and trials that decimate families and, ultimately, lead to the hangings of innocent people. It’s a story that’s still alive today from the historic and horrific McCarthy hearings to the squares of Egypt and Libya. But, because this piece of history has been documented in such a dramatic fashion by Miller and reset to Ward’s passionate, often beautiful and lush music, its musical impact makes this an opera that will stand the test of time.
Director Michael Unger and scenic designer Michael Schweikardt have brought us a traditional production that transports us to the stark realities of the 1690s, when people plowed and seeded a land that seemed “the size of a continent when you go foot by foot sowing new seed.” Schweikardt’s sets are so solid you could move into them, and Unger’s characters so real they could easily be your next-door neighbors. Ken Yunker’s lighting accentuates the impending doom without being gloomy, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s religious and dour costumes look properly homespun and heavy.
David Neely’s conducting keeps every note and nuance in shape; it steps out of the way and allows the power of the score to take center stage.
Sean Anderson and Heather Johnson make a young attractive couple as John and Elizabeth Proctor, whose marriage has been put in jeopardy by the evil machinations of Lindsay Barche’s Abigail Williams. Both Anderson and Johnson give stunning performances as actors and singers, showing a maturity of characters and vocal solidity that we’ve not seen in their previously excellent but lighter roles that included Papageno and Hansel. Barche, a studio artist, is up to most of the vocal requirements of Abigail but has a way to go until she can portray the deviousness of this manipulating young girl whose sexiness is cloaked in innocence.
Nicole Mitchell, another studio artist, is a standout singer as Tituba, the slave from Barbados who has no compunctions about playing whichever side will keep her unscathed, whether it’s accusing the innocent or allying herself with Abigail and leading the young girls in naked dances in the woods. Mitchell’s deep, gutsy, chest voice was pushed a bit opening night, but, with the composer in the audience, the electricity was palpable and understandable.
Studio artist Lara Michole Tillotson gets just the right touch of fear and indecisiveness into her characterization of Mary Warren, the girl who knows the truth but is too afraid of Abigail to stand her ground in court. Jeffrey Tucker’s Reverend Hale is soundly sung and honed as he is transformed to reluctant hangman (“I signed away the life of Rebecca Nurse this morning and my hand quivers yet...”) and realizes “There is private vengeance working in these trials.” Bernard D. Holcomb’s Ezekiel Cheever, Lindsay Ohse’s Ann Putnam and Dimitrie Lazich’s Thomas Putnam are each viciously poisonous and seductively seething, while Mathew Edwardsen gives such a ringing and resounding tenor cut to Judge Danforth and his lack of humility and shame, you know from his first notes this is a “hanging judge.”
Apprentice artists Carolina Castells, Melissa Mino, Leah Kaye Serr, Jennifer Townshend, Rebecca Caliendo and Tania Maria Rodriguez do well as the manipulated but willing followers of Abigail. And Steven Uliana, Kaitlin Bertenshaw, Bradley Smoak and Heath Huberg make fine showings in their smaller but pivotal parts.
“The Crucible” has been long in coming to Sarasota but its fierce message, and passionate, glorious music make it more than an American classic; it’s an operatic masterpiece.