The Sarasota Youth Opera brought “The Little Sweep,” a work for and about children by Benjamin Britten, back this season after having performed it, to great acclaim, a few years ago. It returned for a couple of excellent reasons: First, 2013 is the centenary of Britten’s birth. Second, it’s an interesting piece with some great parts for young voices, and, with the cast of characters changing at the Youth Opera, it was particularly good as a showcase for some of the new young singers who are showing great potential.
Almost as interesting as the 100th birthday celebration of the illustrious composer was the way “The Little Sweep” was presented this time around. Martha Collins, the stage director, and Jesse Martins, the conductor and music director of the Sarasota Youth Opera, collaborated on a prologue to show the audience how an opera comes together. A little like Britten’s own “Let’s Make An Opera!” and a slight take on Mickey (Rooney) and Judy (Garland) putting together a show, this prologue began with the entire cast of kids, dressed in brightly colored T-shirts, milling around the stage, talking about what they and their mentors were planning as a performance.
Written by Collins with musical selections cleverly chosen by Martins, the witty dialogue was interspersed with choral selections, including arrangements of “Shenandoah,” Verdi’s “Lo Spazzacamino,” “Stomp Your Foot” from Copland’s opera, “The Tender Land” and “Goin’ to Boston.” An excerpt from Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs” was used as traveling music to transport us to colder climes (Boston), where there are chimneys and, with those chimneys, little sweeps.
With that "Souvenir," the choral risers vanished from the stage and a whole new set — walls, windows, fireplace, massive wardrobe, children’s building blocks and an oversized rocking horse — was constructed right before our eyes, a little like the magical Christmas tree rising on the set of Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.” Like magic, we were transported to 19th century Boston and inside a real-life opera.
Britten’s music isn’t easy, even when he’s writing for children. But musical kids have the ability to adapt their intelligence and ears much better than adults, so melodies and harmonies that could stump many a grown-up singer poured easily out of the mouths of these babes.
Monica Gonzalez, the teenager who tackled the intricacies of Rowan, the nursery-maid the day we attended the performance, was particularly striking. In fact, she sang and acted so well, I had to check the program to be sure she was part of the Youth Opera and not an Apprentice Artist. Other youngsters who acquitted themselves well as singing actors that day included Natalie Almeter (Juliette), Katherine Powell (George), Skyler Stahlmann (Sophie), Sophia Masterson (Johnny), Grayson Almeter (Hughie) and Dominique Cecchetti (Tina).
Pablo Gonzalez, who took on the sophisticated part of the Little Sweep, Sam, rolled easily with the vocal range Britten wrote and deftly had us believing he was alternately frightened, brave and victorious.
The three parts given over to adults — Big Bob, the mean old sweep-master; Clem, his chip-off-the-mean-old-block son and assistant; and Miss Baggott, the grumpy, tyrannical housekeeper — were niftily performed by a trio of Sarasota Opera Apprentices: Constandinos Tsourakis, Jesse Malgieri and Samantha Weppelmann.
Britten was clever. He made sure the younger voices were never covered by a large instrumental ensemble so, whenever a young solo voice appeared, either the piano or a smaller instrumental group provided the accompanying orchestral parts. And Martins did fine work keeping it all together without ever overpowering the singers.
Chris van Alstyne’s imaginative set was brilliantly lit by Ken Yunker, with resourceful costumes by B.G. FitzGerald and inspired hair and make-up by Audrey Bernardin.
But it was Collins whose creativity won the day with an ingenious staging that gave each character a reason to be a real person and kept the audience enraptured throughout the entire production.
“The Little Sweep,” along with Collins’ visionary prologue, turned Britten’s opera into what could be called his Young People’s Guide to the Opera, a work that inspired those in the audience, as well as those on the stage.