Sarasota Opera launches American series with a compelling “Crucible”

March 09, 2011

Sean Anderson as John Proctor and Heather Johnson as Elizabeth in Sarasota Opera's production of Robert Ward's "The Crucible."

It was a heartening sight at Sarasota Opera when the 93-year-old Robert Ward walked on stage to be applauded enthusiastically by the singers and audience following the evening’s opening-night performance of the composer’s celebrated opera, The Crucible.

Last Saturday’s performance marked a new venture for the ambitious regional company on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Sarasota Opera has garnered international renown for its long-running cycle of the complete Verdi operas. With that decades-long project nearing its final seasons, artistic director Victor DeRenzi has embarked upon a new initiative, the American Classics Series, which will present one homegrown opera every year. Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Crucible will be followed by Samuel Barber’s Vanessa next year and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in 2013.

Ward’s 1961 opera is largely faithful to Arthur Miller’s play of the Salem witch trials and the Byzantine accusations, counteraccusations, paranoia, cowardice and courage in 1692 Massachusetts. The tale remains a moving if somewhat complex drama, with its original metaphor as an indictment of the excesses of McCarthyism remaining sadly relevant in an era of violent, religiously motivated extremism around the globe.

But it is Ward’s music that made such an impact at its New York City Opera premiere and that continues to make The Crucible such a fresh, dynamic and communicative work today. Going against the grain of the arid academic serialism that was ascendant in contemporary American music circles, Ward created an unapologetically tonal score that still has an angular bite and restless forward momentum alongside moments of heart-stopping beauty, like the lyrical opening of Act 2.

Sarasota Opera’s new production was in the company’s faithful, traditional house style with Michael Schweikardt’s clapboard houses and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s striking period costumes setting the time and place starkly and evocatively.

With a large cast of nearly two-dozen roles, it was perhaps inevitable that the vocalism would prove uneven as it did opening night with singing that ranged from inspired to just serviceable.

Towering above the rest—literally as well as figuratively—was Sean Anderson in the central role of John Proctor. In a 180-degree turn from his delightful Papageno last season, the tall American baritone displayed a robust and powerful voice. At ease on stage, Anderson brought a real moral force and psychological complexity to this gruff, flawed yet ultimately principled man who would rather go to the gallows than sign a false confession.

As his suffering wife Elizabeth, Heather Johnson brought unbridled intensity to her pleas to John to renounce his adultery, her fiery commitment mitigating a mezzo voice that sounded a size too small for the role.

Of the rest of the cast, Nicole Mitchell was a vividly characterized presence as the slave Tituba, Jeffery Tucker, a sonorous Reverend Hale, Dimitrie Lazich a blustery, uptight Putnam, Matthew Edwardsen an aptly pompous Judge Danforth and Lindsay Barche, a dedicated yet decidedly squally Abigail.

At times one wanted more strings and richer textures in Ward’s sumptuous moments, but conductor David Neely did his work well, leading the orchestra in an alert and sympathetic account of this wonderful score.

Even with the hit-and miss vocalism, Sarasota Opera’s Crucible is a compelling and effective production. Let’s hope that this fine start to an ambitious and important project will motivate other opera companies to rededicate themselves to promoting our bounteous yet shamefully neglected operatic heritage.

The Crucible will be performed March 10, 13, 16, and 19.; 941-328-1300.

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