Fatal cycles of transgression and the awful truths that follow provide “Emmeline,” given its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera, with a brooding sense of classic tragedy. As a reworking of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” set in 19th-century New England, “Emmeline” is gripping, uncompromising operatic fare.
The second of three operas commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera, “Emmeline” rises to a powerful conclusion in its story of a vulnerable woman whom fate toys with and leaves on the brink of madness. Musically accessible and dramatically coherent, the opera will be televised nationally on PBS’ “Great Performances” (tentatively Jan. 29).
The motivating force of the opera is the New England intolerance of sin, with the promise of eternal damnation as central here as it is in “Faust.” There is inherent pathos in the story of the 13-year-old Emmeline, sent to work in a mill. Seduced by the philandering son-in-law of the mill owner, Emmeline has a baby and gives the child, thought to be a girl, up for adoption.
Twenty years later, still attractive and independent, Emmeline (Patricia Racette) meets a young man (Curt Peterson) who wins her with his harmonica playing and sweet smiles. They marry, but at her mother’s funeral an aunt divulges that Matthew is Emmeline’s child. Although the husband/son becomes a victim of the tragic cycle, Emmeline refuses the community’s demand that she be a sacrificial lamb.
J.D. McClatchy’s sharply defined libretto combines with Tobias Picker’s imaginative music to deliver a contemporary work of strong moral conviction. The opera’s dominant mood is that of vulnerability, with death a commanding presence in three funeral episodes.
Picker’s first opera finds an ebb and flow in long, arresting phrases, expressive of the heroine’s lamentable circumstances. Harmonically, the style is conservative. Picker gamely sets a scene of girls working in a mill as a scherzo , and in sardonic playfulness incorporates jazzy syncopation in the seduction scene. “Rock of Ages” makes an appearance, adding to the sense of Americana.
The music is rooted in what has come to be known as the “American sound,” with rhythmic contrasts and melodic inventiveness. Instrumentation is largely translucent, although Picker occasionally will set a horn passage against a vocal line, making the latter inaudible. In one romantic duo, busy instrumentation defies comprehension of text, the most serious problem in the work.
Racette triumphs in a winning performance, establishing Emmeline as a genuine character. Her freshness and fullness of voice disarm, her enunciation is a model ofclarity. Peterson, as the young lover, engages with his stalwart tenor and personable presence. The dependable Kevin Langan gives a fine, rounded performance, and Victor Ledbetter uses sure acting and a pleasant baritone to portray the bamboozling seducer. As the aunt who purveys bad news, Anne-Marie Owens has an opulent sound but stands like a statue and shows no interest in enunciation. Josepha Gayer does what she can with a nothing part, while Melanie Sarakatsannis, an apprentice, shows animation and vocal promise, and Herbert Perry displays a substantial baritone.
Director Francesca Zambello illuminates the production with broad strokes of action and sensitive handling of actors. Deeply involved with Picker and McClatchy in the creation of the opera, she brings passion and tenderness to the complex relationships of family and townspeople.
The director also superbly utilizes the stark, seamless setting by Robert Israel. The set features a rectangular pit several feet deep, used as cemetery, mill, pond and church pews, and always symbolizing hellish damnation. A skewed cross on one wall symbolizes righteousness with little forgiveness. Lighting by Amy Appleyard brings magic to barren walls, and costuming by Dunya Ramicova is perfectly in key with the milieu.
Insightful conducting by George Manahan, newly named musical director of the New York City Opera, lends clarity and power.