American composer Margaret Garwood said that she was stirred to write operas about the victimization of women. Watching her latest opera The Scarlet Letter, playing to a packed house at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia yesterday, I felt as though I touched her passion and her purpose for writing this work. While staying textbook true to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic tale, Garwood made a powerful statement about tolerance—artistically and socially—through the medium of opera.
It’s a tragic story—a relentlessly black tale about Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear the scarlet “A” on her breast for committing adultery, though her husband never makes it to the New World, believed to have been lost at sea. The townsfolk are vengeful and vigilant antagonists, relentless in their need to punish Hester for her sin. They are like the tall sturdy trees which often filled the stage to haunting effect—never bending, never swaying, each one as indistinguishable as the next. Yet, Garwood found many shades of light in the dark dismal Puritan settlement that was seventeenth-century Boston. Amidst unconscionable censure, Hester’s essential goodness, devotion to duty, and her abiding loyalty to the Reverend Dimmesdale all found expression in Garwood’s music.
Garwood’s The Scarlet Letter was a world premiere produced by the Academy of Vocal Arts, itself a premier training company for professional opera singers. Their production evidenced solid production values, buoyed first by the singing—the soloists and the ensemble. Corinne Winters’ portrayal of Hester was both powerful and nuanced. Her pitch-perfect soprano, like Hester’s forbearance, was a beacon, soaring above the nattering townsfolk who would rather Hester live than be hanged so they could see her suffer more. Zach Borichevsky’s portrayal of Rev. Dimmesdale became stronger and more compelling the further he slipped into the profound anguish that eventually claimed his life.
The chorus numbers were deftly written and a true highlight of this production—all of the AVA students’ fine voices combining to, at times, chilling effect. The set design was clever—almost a character in itself, commenting on the narrative. Set pieces whirled effortlessly around the stage like dervishes, churning up Hester’s sin again and again—sometimes a church, then a gallows, then a prison and finally returning to the gallows. The most evocative, magical scene in the entire work was Hester’s dream sequence, in which all of the elements—music, set, stage movement, and lighting design worked together to near-perfect effect.
My only criticism of the production was that the orchestra, though comprised of highly skilled players, was too loud too often, forcing the singers to compete with it to be heard. In opera, the audience is there to hear the singers above all else. The audience can still appreciate fine orchestration at a volume that doesn’t overpower the singers–something I wish the conductor would have acknowledged during the Sunday performance.
At curtain call, the audience was full of brotherly love, generous in showing their appreciation for the opera students studying their profession and, most especially, for the talented composer who lived and worked in their city. It was a thrilling experience to see the composer of an opera take a bow with the cast and the conductor, and one I won’t soon forget.