- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007

While the notion of a new opera based on “Little Women,” the classic 19th century American novel by Louisa May Alcott, had been discussed by composer Mark Adamo and Washington’s Summer Opera company in the mid-1990s, the work was actually premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1998. Now it’s coming home for its D.C. premiere at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre.

Summer Opera’s “Little Women” is a real summer surprise. Charming, tuneful and economically written, the opera is emotional without descending into bathos. And it is genuinely, unabashedly funny as well.

Alcott’s novel is almost hopelessly old-fashioned. Loosely based on the author’s own family of ur-hippie transcendentalists, the novel charts the coming of age of four teenage sisters. In Mr. Adamo’s compositional hands, underneath the surface frivolity, there is an undercurrent of dark foreboding as the ticking clock gradually comes center stage to erode the innocence of youth.

Shimmering tone clusters in the percussion section frequently underpin lush arias and ensembles clad in eminently singable tunes in Mr. Adamo’s highly distinctive score. The book is economical, marred only by a final coda that goes on perhaps 20 bars too long.

The opera proved perfectly suited to the lively small space of the Hartke. Its statements are not grand but intimate, with a personal rather than declamatory message. It is a small masterpiece, a quiet gem that should not be missed. The Summer Opera makes this co-production with OperaDelaware its own with a cast of singers that will literally steal your heart before you know it.

Top of the charts is vigorous, silvery-voiced soprano Jenna Lebherz as the heroine, Jo, the extroverted, swashbuckling sister who, while embracing tradition, also walks on the precarious edge of feminism. The rest of the cast is not far behind in delivering highly convincing performances, including mezzo Elaine Dalbo and sopranos Ashleigh Rabbitt and Kelly Smith as Jo’s sisters Meg, Amy and the ill-fated Beth; mezzo Alexandra Christoforakis and baritone James Shaffran as Mom and Dad March; mezzo Laura Zuiderveen as the dour Cecilia March; and tenor James Biggs as Laurie, baritone Christopher Rhodovi, and bass-baritone Joshua Sekoski as the March girls’ three perplexed suitors. Mr. Sekoski in particular gets the best aria in the opera as he recites Goethe to Jo in song.

The small orchestra performed with quiet effectiveness under the baton of Kate Tamarkin in this sparkling performance.

*** 1/2

WHO: Summer Opera

WHAT: Mark Adamo’s “Little Women”

WHEN: June 20 at 7:30 p.m.; June 24 at 2:30 p.m.

WHERE: Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington D.C.

TICKETS: $40 to $65

TELEPHONE: 202/319-4000

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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