Robert Ward. The Crucible. Opera performed at the Kent State University Stark Theatre, Canton, Ohio. Kent State University Stark Theatre: http://www.stark.kent.edu/academics/depts/thea/
Led by stage director Brian Newberg and music director and pianist Judith Ryder, Kent State University vocal faculty members, guest artists, and vocal graduate students collaborated in a vocally, musically, and theatrically compelling performance of Robert Ward’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Crucible on June 7th to 9th at the Kent State University Stark Theatre. The performance was a fitting memorial for a composer who was labeled a “traditionalist” during a time when traditionalism was anything but mainstream. Ward (1917-2013) was a Cleveland native, attending John Adams High School before moving on to the Eastman and Juilliard Schools of Music.
Commissioned by the New York City Opera and premiered in 1961, The Crucible, which is the best-known of Ward’s five operas, is set to Bernhard Stambler’s adaption of Arthur Miller’s well-known 1953 play. Loosely based on historical facts, Miller’s play is ostensibly a dramatization of the Salem witch trials, but beneath this veneer is a thinly-veiled analogy of the hysterical distrust of the McCarthy era, the consequences of which Miller himself suffered personally. The play reveals a twisted societal paradigm in which slander, suspicion, and the evil spirits of past infidelities are used as psychological weapons in a quest for power and possession, a paradigm in which integrity is punished and deceit rewarded. The title suggests the intense “heat” to which members of this society are subjected and the inescapable situations in which they find themselves. The timelessness and universality of the complex paradoxes explored in Miller’s play have made it a classic of American theater repertory. Ward’s operatic setting has become one of the best-known and most-performed 20th century American operas.
Although rooted in tonality, Ward’s setting of Stambler’s textually thick libretto is harmonically and contrapuntally dense and vocally demanding. Chromaticism, dissonance, and driving melodic and harmonic motion propel the drama forward, creating an aura of irresolvable tension. While the melodic writing is lyrical and idiomatic, it also includes angular leaps that follow the inflections and drama of the text. Judith Ryder’s interpretative insight, coaching expertise, and pianistic strength and sensitivity resulted in a musically seamless, deceptively effortless musical performance. Director Brian Newman’s creative yet spare, efficient staging provided an effective contrast to Ward’s restless, thick orchestration, juxtaposing the stark asceticism of the Puritans with the complex web of fear and confusion that lay below their surface culture of simplicity, order, and respect for authority.
Operatic protagonists are often sopranos and tenors, while mezzo sopranos and baritones are more often cast in roles that include deception and deceit. Perhaps to illustrate the dangers of societal stereotyping, Ward reverses the operatic fach stereotypes. Baritone Brian Johnson gave a vocally and dramatically commanding performance of the stern but emotionally complex John Proctor who, like the Christ of the Passions, sacrifices himself for the good of his society. Tenor Daniel Doty played the paranoid and power-hungry Reverend Samuel Parris, Abigail’s uncle. Melissa Davis’s crystalline light lyric soprano voice belied a deceptive, seductive, frighteningly determined Abigail Williams, while the upright and uncompromising Rebecca Nurse, who in the end chooses execution over dishonesty, was played by mezzo-soprano Denise Milner-Howell. Soprano Laurel Seeds’ insightful portrayal of Proctor’s anxious wife, Elizabeth, invoked sympathy for Elizabeth’s emotional distance from her husband. Baritone Robin Rice convincingly succeeded in transforming Reverend John Hale from a self-congratulatory, overzealous witch-craft expert to an empathetic but sadly impotent supporter of the accused. The vocally and dramatically versatile soprano Lindsey Leonard captured Mary Warren’s shifting emotional instability. Tenor Tim Culver’s penetrating tenor radiated a sense of unyielding authority to the steely, self-assured Judge Danforth. The large cast also included strong performances by Mary Francis Miller as the frightened slave, Tituba; Kenneth Kramer as the greedy and conniving Thomas Putnam; Lara Troyer as his hysterical wife, Ann Putman; Alfred Anderson as her husband, Francis Nurse, an enemy of Thomas Putman; Jim Gray Smith as the honorable Ezekiel Cheever; and Alfred Leonard, Dan Weisman, Megan McConnell, Megan Radtke, Maureen Thomas, Rebecca Seiler, Lauren Paulis, Jenna Stolarik, Jennifer Kirchner, Mark Miller, and Collin Rowe as Puritan community members. The ensemble was supported by Judith Ryder’s masterful and accomplished performance of the piano score.