UT Opera struggles with balance in an otherwise stirring production of 'The Crucible'

Today’s operagoers are certainly comfortable with their many familiar tales of dying ladies, star-crossed lovers, epic conflicts, murder, revenge, greed, and betrayal. And for good and timeless reasons. The brilliance of historic opera’s musical and dramatic inventions—and the abstract admiration for those who can perform it—allows us to accept the contexts of these tales, even if they are far removed from our own experience.

However, a contemporary opera with contemporary relevance becomes an entirely different beast for theatergoers. Such was the case with last weekend’s production from the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre—Robert Ward’s The Crucible, based on the Arthur Miller play from 1953. Miller’s play about the Salem witch hunts of the 1690s—his allegory to his own experience with the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy—is now almost 60 years old. Yet both play and opera present us with some timely and uncomfortable reminders of what happens when fear, paranoia, and social outrage trump rational behavior and conceal more disingenuous human motives.

Although constructed around the central figure of John Proctor and his entanglement in the hysteria fueled by the servant girl Abigail Williams, Ward’s opera, with a libretto by Bernard Stambler, is quite the ensemble piece. In fact, it is the ensemble scenes of the townspeople in conflict that gives this work its flow and impact, both musically and dramatically. The score is essentially aria-less, at least in the traditional sense. Ward’s mid-20th-century modern vocal lyricism stands in as dialogue, and his detailed, sometimes heavy, orchestration serves as underscore and background in an almost cinematic way.

Unfortunately, these characteristics of Ward’s score, coupled with the clarity and brightness of the Bijou Theatre’s uncanny acoustics, proved to be quite an issue for conductor Kevin Class in leading the UT Opera Orchestra. Over the three performances, the orchestra was uniformly too loud; even the strongest singers had occasional problems projecting over it. Although Class did an excellent job of maintaining the tight dramatic intensity inherent in the score, the orchestral volume was just too much for some of the singers. (A devil’s advocate might offer, though, that this is the real world of operatic production and young singers must be able to project in a theater.)

As he has in previous productions, stage director Carroll Freeman reveled in the ensemble nature of this piece, which offered him the opportunity to inject his high-energy, physical staging into performances by students of varying experiences and abilities. What seemed to be missing, though, almost unconsciously, from both Freeman’s physical production and from the overall characterizations was a more focused, undiluted image of the harsh tragedy of hypocrisy and irrationality.

The large ensemble cast was split across the three performances, and essentially represented two casts of the leading roles. Appearing as John Proctor were baritones Jesse Stock and Seth Maples, each bringing his own assets to the role. Stock’s strength was his incredibly rich, mature, and versatile vocal performance. Maples, on the other hand, brought a beautiful clean tone coupled with a skillfully realized dramatic transformation. Paired with Stock as Proctor’s wife Elizabeth was Corrine Stevens; paired with Maples was Leah Serr, who brought a quiet strength and lyrical beauty to the role. Rachel Anne Moore sang a powerful, and deliciously evil, Abigail Williams. Valerie Haber’s more delicate Abigail was unfortunately overwhelmed by the orchestra. Other vocal standouts included Erik Lickiss as Rev. Parris; Evan Broadhead at Thomas Putnam; Andrew Gilchrist as Rev. Hale; and Paige Patrick and Jessica Cates as Ann Putnam. Singing the role of Tituba on Friday and Saturday was the beautifully lyrical Denisha Ballew; LaSaundra Brown, a WBIR-TV anchor, took the Sunday performance.

The sets, designed by Steven McLean for Des Moines Metro Opera, seemed to offer some tantalizing visual metaphors for the characters’ dilemma. Steps brought characters down into the scene in a pit-like way that heightened the dramatic tension. The overhead beams seemed almost like a trap ready to spring shut for John Proctor—similar to the trap that author Arthur Miller no doubt personally experienced.

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