Kaum eine andere Geschichte über die englischen/amerikanischen Pilgerväter hat mich so beeindruckt wie die von Nathaniel Hawthorne in seinem Roman The Scarlet Letter – die 1850 überzeitlich Ausgrenzung, Frauenunterdrückung und verbieterische Moral in einer engen und lebensbedrohten Gemeinschaft beschreibt. Das Buch ist oft verfilmt worden – in Stummfilmzeiten mit der großen Lillian Gish, viele Male danach (zuletzt weniger erfolgreich mit Demi Moore). Aber kein Film hat diese deprimierende Enge gesellschaftlicher Normen so herausgebracht wie der Roman selbst: diese phobische Angst vor dem Ausscheren einzelner aus dem eisernen Verbund der Gruppe, dieser Hass auf das Indiviuduum, dessen Leidenschaft die Grenzen der Konvention und der vorgegebenen Moral sprengt. Darin ist The Scarlet Letter eine Parabel über eine intolerante Gesellschaft, die vor allem keine befreiende Sexualität des einzelnen zulässt, weil er dann nicht mehr zu kontrollieren ist. Anderssein wird verfolgt und vernichtet. Das gilt für autoritäre Regime ebenso wie für kleine Gruppen, in denen sich Fanatiker und Gleichgesinnte sammeln. Wer anders ist oder abweichend handelt denkt wird geächtet und verfolgt – eine bittere Lehre.
Nun ist im fernen Denver am 12. Mai 2016 (m. W.) nach Damrosch, Garwood und anderen eine Oper über diesen Stoff von Lori Laitman mit eben diesem Titel, The Scarlet Letter, zur Aufführung gekommen, über die Charles Jernigan (in Englisch) nachstehend berichtet. G. H.
In 1992, Alfred Kazin, writing in the New York Review of Books, asked, “Why is there no opera on The Scarlet Letter?” His article goes on to detail how ‘operatic’ Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel is. In fact there were at least two Scarlet Letter operas before 1992, and one of them had been around a long time, since 1896. The composer was Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony and a well-known Wagnerian. (Damrosch’s father, Leopold, had run the then-new Metropolitan Opera for a season, producing only German works.) Apparently, Damrosch’s opera was Wagnerian in scope and sound, and its premiere, in a concert version, at Carnegie Hall starred the great Wagnerian soprano Lillian Nordica as Hester Prynne. It was subsequently heard in a staged version, and then, in spite of Damrosch’s continuing fame as a classical musician and music educator (he died in 1950), it was not heard from again. There was also a Scarlet Letter by Walter Kaufmann, published in 1961.
Since Kazin’s article there have been other Scarlet Letter operas; one by octogenarian composer Margaret Garwood, was heard at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts in 2010, and deemed a success. There are others out there too, some performed and some not. In 1855, Hawthorne himself wrote that he had heard that scenes from an unfinished Scarlet Letter opera had been performed in New York. “I should think it might possibly succeed as an opera,” he wrote, “though it would certainly fail as a play.” (The English Note-Books).
Indeed, Hawthorne’s great romance of puritan New England is set up in very operatic “scenes” which focus on a character or a setting (e.g., the scaffold, the forest). There are aria-like expressions (Dimmesdale’s tortured “confession” to the night in the middle of the novel, and his public confession to the assembled community at the end) and even duets (Dimmesdale and Hester in the forest). The novel itself, although the torment of generations of high-school English students, is so basic to the American character and experience that it is impossible to avoid as a pillar of American literature. And its relevance is as great today as it was in the 1600’s when the story is set or the mid-1800’s of Hawthorne’s own New England. Who can forget the pious ministers of our recent past whose sexual peccadillos have led them to ruin—Jim Baker of South Carolina, Jimmy Swaggart of New Orleans, Mark Driscoll of Seattle, or Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs?
For all of these reasons an operatic treatment of this classic tale is both natural and relevant. And so it was, that after a lengthy gestation period, and a frustrating postponement, composer Lori Latiman and librettist David Mason’s Scarlet Letter debuted this past weekend thanks to Denver’s Opera Colorado. It was originally supposed to have happened in 2013, but financing got in the way. In the meantime, the singer originally scheduled to sing Hester Prynne (Elizabeth Futral) was replaced: Ms. Laitman and Mr. Mason certainly have reason to understand that the “convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali” (the vicissitudes of theatrical life) that Donizetti made fun of in his comic opera of the same name are not a thing of the past.
These days, every American opera company wants to make its mark with a new work. Just this week San Diego Opera opened the almost-new Great Scott, and Minnesota Opera is busy this month with The Shining. Opera Colorado is now in the game, and has set down a strong marker with this Scarlet Letter (…).
Ms. Laitman gives her principal characters motifs, short melodic phrases. Some seemed overused to me, like Chillingworth’s motif in his aria near the opera’s beginning. If the motifs seldom really blossomed into memorable tunes, they were always listenable. At the end of the opera, the dramatic climax is Dimmesdale’s confession of his paternity when he reveals some mysterious ‘mark’ (another scarlet letter? a psychological mark of guilt?) on his breast before he dies. Dominic Armstrong certainly performed it well, but I wanted a bigger musical climax, something that would allow us to have a musical catharsis the way that Dimmesdale has a sort of catharsis in his confession of so much pent-up guilt. That was not to be. Instead, Ms. Laitman gives us a choral postlude sung by the puritan community ,whichis very nice musically, but reflecting more I do not feel that it is entirely fair to critique the ‘impish’, skipping music that Laitman puts in the orchestra when she appears, but she does not sing, and that, necessarily, diminishes her importance as a contrast to the cold, hard, guilt-ridden world of the puritans.
Laitman’s music is approachable, and she obviously knows how to write for the voice, something a lot of contemporary opera composers seem to approach tentatively. Her melodies are singable and do not ask the singers to go places where the voice should not go, although Hester’s tessitura is frequently very high by design. Elizabeth Futral has that kind of a voice, and Laura Claycomb can handle it too, often beautifully. Laitman gives us traditional arias which are almost set pieces, and they have pauses for audience applause; there are also duets, though not many, if any, trios, quartets or the like. Laitman’s experience is the art song, and at its least interesting, the opera sounds like a lot of narrative songs strung together, one hardly different sounding than the next one, no matter what the character or the emotion expressed. At its best, however, the music is evocative and lovely, and occasionally dramatic. I thought the best moments (on first hearing) were the two confession scenes for Dimmesdale and the forest love duet for Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne. Also very good were the choral sections, which almost sounded like Broadway music, or maybe like Douglas Moore’s, Ballad of Baby Doe’s big scenes (that is one “modern” opera which has indeed had legs, and will enjoy its 60th anniversary this summer in Central City). I also liked the aria by Mistress Hibbons, the witch character, for its vehemence.
It is the most complex piece that I have ever heard only once (although I did listen to some excerpts with piano accompaniment on line), yet here goes. David Mason, once Colorado’s poet laureate, has done a nice job of reducing the novel to opera length by emphasizing several central scenes which were already self contained in the novel. The story moves logically to its conclusion. His lyrics (when I could make them out clearly) seemed often lovely, as when he strayed from the novel to create a chorus which was perhaps more in keeping with our sentiments about the unknowability of the universe than it was related to the puritan mentality. The lyrics often rhyme, an unusual feature in today’s libretti, and they can sometimes sound sing-song. One possible flaw in Mason’s reduction is that Pearl, Hester’s daughter, a major figure in the novel who represents the natural world unfettered by the constraints of religion and “morality,” is a mute figure in the opera. If you know the novel, you can understand what she means, especially with twenty-first century doubt than seventeenth century certainty. (Hawthorne has his own postlude, telling us what happened to the characters after the death of the minister.)
To me, the opera’s most surprising weakness was in the music for Hester herself. Hester gets a lullaby for her infant daughter early in the opera, but nothing after that which arouses sympathy for the character. She is more of a symbolic figure for the two men (her husband Chillingworth and her lover Dimmesdale) who alternately fume or agonize over their relationship to her. I wanted her to have more sympathetic music to make me care more about her. She is a strong woman in the novel, stronger than either of the men in her life, who, let’s face it, are both bastards, and she is a survivor. I didn’t get that strength in the opera.
The singers were all good, fully up to the challenge. Ms. Claycomb (Hester Prynne) is a fine artist, with a wide-ranging repertoire. I have heard her in bel canto roles, but she also sings lots of contemporary opera. She had the high notes and the ability to sing softly that the role of Hester requires, and she can float a high note. She is a trim woman, and looked great as Hester, particularly with her spectacular shock of unruly red hair, when she lets it down in the forest scene. Dominic Armstrong was powerful in the thankless role of Arthur Dimmesdale (is there any less heroic tenor role?), notwithstanding some straining at the upper end of the register. His two confession scenes were highlights. Hester’s husband, going by the false name of Roger Chillingworth, was a very strong Malcolm
Mackenzie. In the novel, he is an outsider, wearing buckskin from his time living with the Indians, and here he was given a gnarled cane which symbolized his crooked heart. Margaret Gawrysiak (Mistress Hibbons) received well deserved applause for her witch’s aria. In fact, the whole cast was strong, as was the chorus, well trained by John Baril.
I thought that one of the strengths of the opera was the orchestration, which lent variety to the occasional sameness of the vocal lines. Conductor Ari Pelto brought all of that out; it seemed to me to be a very accomplished performance. The stage direction by Beth Greenberg was simple, but effective. At the end she has the dying or dead Dimmesdale cradled in Hester’s arms in a tableau which is surely intended to mimic Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà. I was not sure what that meant. I liked the simple set of Erhard Rom (timber-like “walls” and a rough cloth curtain which moved to form a square, a prison, a room, or the forest). There were effective projections too (by Topher Blair). A lot of ladder-back chairs were the only stage furniture, arranged in neat rows for the puritans, thrown into heaps when that order broke down. Costumes (by Terese Wadden) were fine although the puritan men looked more like contemporary Amish men than seventeenth century puritans, at least what I think of as puritan garb. The scarlet letter is a large embroidered “A” that Hester is forced to wear to declare her shame as an adulteress. Opera Colorado promoted the new work by projecting a large scarlet “A” in the lobby and having ushers wear a scarlet “A” pin. I understand that patrons were encouraged to wear red on opening night. I doubt that Denver society had ever seen so many scarlet women openly declaring themselves as such; and there is some (unintended?) irony in having patrons and employees wearing scarlet letters themselves, when you consider what the scarlet letter signifies.
No matter. This Laitman/Mason opera is a significant step for the company, for Denver, and, one imagines, for the creators. We all hope it has legs and will travel, that it will not fall into oblivion like Damrosch’s long-forgotten work. At the very least, we are told, it will have a recording, on the Naxos label, due out in 2017. That in itself, is a kind of immortality, and one that this opera well deserves. Charles Jernigan