Review By James H. North
LAITMAN The Scarlet Letter • Ari Pelto, cond; Laura Claycomb (Hester Prynne); Dominic Armstrong (Arthur Dimmesdale); Malcolm MacKenzie (Roger Chillingworth); Op Colorado Ch & O • NAXOS 8.669034-35 (2 CDs: 111:22) Live: Denver 5/7–15/2016
The Scarlet Letter is of course Hester Prynne’s A. In one way, the opera is a bit late; adultery is old hat in the 21st century. On a broader scale, hypocrisy in society is ever present. Lori Laitman writes brilliantly scored music; it’s been a while since I’ve heard such a colorful new American opera. It has many other virtues as well: eminently singable vocal lines in which the words are easily understood—unusual even in English, a credit to the composer and to librettist David Mason as well as to the singers—plus a convincing movement along a dramatic course. Laitman has made her name in art songs, as several positive Fanfare reviews attest. Best of all, she avoids the basic pitfall of new American operas: dumbing the music down to ensure audience—or, more precisely, impresario—acceptance. Let me amend that: the pitfall of new American operas that do make it to performance and recording. Kudos to the University of Central Arkansas, which commissioned the opera, to Opera Colorado and its general director Gregory Carpenter, and to Naxos.
The first act sets the scene and takes much time to define the characters. Hester’s honesty, pride, and love for her child are obvious; the two men in her life are complex characters. Chillingworth, her aged, disfigured husband (whom, missing for years, she had thought lost at sea), is a doctor sworn to protect Hester and her child in prison. He has long lost the ability to love and wishes her no harm, yet he is driven by an inner storm to unearth the child’s father. No one but Hester knows he is her husband. Dimmesdale, a young minister who is the child’s father, is tortured by guilt and fear of exposure, which leads him to increasing psychic and physical illness. Throughout the first act, the two men are close, unknowing friends. Elder minister John Wilson and Governor Bellingham represent two sides of hypocritical society. Long arias in act I tend to be repetitive, making little of their fine basic material. It is part of the story’s spell, and the opera’s, that we cannot be sure just when the husband begins to suspect the minister; nor can we be sure of his intentions.
Act II accelerates the drama and blossoms musically. Hester knows: “You are become a monster, deformed by your desire to ruin someone else. The wisdom I once saw in you has withered like a rotting vine.” She and Dimmesdale meet in the forest and pledge their love, planning to sail together to a new world, a new life. Laitman’s music rises in a long impassioned duet; it’s a scene that could wow an audience at the Met. Her writing is tonal yet new, unconstrained and uninhibited by the past. Back in town (Boston), the story and the music again settle into routine. In the end, of course (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel was published in 1850), conventional morality takes over: Dimmesdale confesses publically and dies, leaving Hester to mourn and Chillingworth to stew “in his impotent rage.”
Hester is strength and courage, knowledge and understanding; both her men are weaker beings, damaged by convention and prejudice. So are their musics and their performers. Hester is a dramatic, lyric, coloratura soprano rolled into one; Laura Claycomb is a powerful vocal actress and soars through the high tessitura. Both men handle their more limited roles carefully, with superb diction but artificial, operatic accents. Dimmesdale finally has a strong aria as he confesses and dies; tenor Dominic Armstrong rises to the occasion. Minor roles are less clear, in intent and in performance; the “witch” Mistress Gibbons contributes little beyond a second female voice. But it is Hester that matters. The Opera Colorado Orchestra is wonderful; conductor Ari Pelto and recording producer/engineer Marian Barry balance everything perfectly.
A fine rhymed libretto, and terrific, well-crafted music; a little tightening in act I might make The Scarlet Letter a staple of American opera, on a level with Susannah and Baby Doe. James H. North