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Opera Review : Unveiling of 'Scarlet Letter'

October 29, 1994|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — When it comes to daring operatic ventures in the Southland, it seems that all roads lead to Long Beach, whose small-but-tough opera company is known for adventurous pluck.

The operatic muse was in town again Thursday night, as Martin Herman's "The Scarlet Letter" had its world premiere in the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach. The production is an impressive in-house effort by the Opera Ensemble of CSLB, with generous outside help.

Apart from some opening night executional glitches (the brief run concludes Sunday afternoon), the performance left a strong, clear impression. Most important, it signified that all-too-rare occurrence on the current musical scene: a premiere of a fully realized new opera.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's pre-modern, proto-feminist tale of social hypocrisy, individualism versus the wheels of injustice, and feminine prowess makes for a ripe operatic vehicle, a fact well-understood by librettist Thomas F. Curley.

In terms of musical language, Herman veers in multiple directions, leaning on Berg-like atonality during tense passages and post-Romantic Strauss-isms during more tender moments. The finale is jarringly cloying, as our heroine pronounces, axiomatically, "be true, be true" into the moonset.

This pluralistic tack works well for the most part, creating an amalgam that gives the work a bold and post-modern character, but it sometimes leads to a confused context. The alternately somber and quietly heroic nature of the narrative doesn't always hold up under shifting stylistic ploys.

A strong vocal cast included a luminous Tracy Strand as scarlet-garbed Hester Prynne, Eli Villanueva as the duplicitous Chillingworth, and Music Center Opera denizens Greg Fedderly and Jonathan Mack, in fine form. Brent McMunn, director of the opera program at Cal State Long Beach, conducted a smallish orchestra for maximum impact.

Stage director Philip Littell, whose recent claim to questionable fame was as the librettist for the recent production of "The Dangerous Liaisons" in San Francisco, lightly disperses the action across economical sets by Chontelle Gray. She paints a fine, visually poetic scene by deploying projections, scrims, cutouts and Spartan props.

On this night, there were skill and grand operatic ambition aplenty in Long Beach.

* "The Scarlet Letter," produced by the CSULB music and theater departments and the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, continues at the Carpenter center, Cal State Long Beach, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Tonight at 8 and Sunday at 2 p.m. $18 to $25. Lectures by composer Martin Herman and director Philip Littell will be given an hour before each performance in the Gerald R. Daniel Recital Hall next to the center. (310) 985-7000.

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