I have fabulous news: I'm now writing for the influential and acclaimed, Boston Music Intelligencer. My first assignment was reviewing a BU production of Tobias Picker's opera, Emmeline. You can read the BMI review here, or check it out below on Soprano In the City. Hope it gets you interested in contemporary opera!
Thursday night, February 23rd, Boston University’s acclaimed Opera Institute presented Tobias Picker’s very first opera, Emmeline, at the Boston University Theatre. It was the first of four performances conducted by William Lumpkin, spanning the entire weekend every night between Thursday and Sunday afternoon. A double cast production, I was immediately struck by its bold, elegant set, comprised of a monolithic, multi-tiered pale brick facade, illuminated with dynamic lighting and a bright, ever-present golden moon.
It was an exceptionally warm night—the first time I’d worn heels in months—the cold, salty winter ice collapsing beneath my feet as I set out to a theater alive with the buzz of young people, faculty, and performers’ parents eager to submerge themselves in an experience of musical esteem and quiet pride: They were there to hear their friends, colleagues, and beloveds on stage, singing a leading American composer’s work for its Opera Institute premiere.
Emmeline was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and first performed in 1996. Based on Judith Rossner’s 1980 novel of the same name, it tells the true story of Emmeline Mosher, who through an unfortunate twist of fate, married her own son. With a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, poet and president of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, Jim Petosa’s BU production begins in Fayette, Maine in 1841 on a stage bathed in moonlight-evoking blue. The burial of an infant is at hand and thirteen-year-old Emmeline quietly watches her parents grieve. Her world-weary Aunt Hannah—played by mezzo soprano Emily Spencer—decides that the best thing for the broken family is to send Emmeline to work in a textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, where the young girl can earn money for them. Spencer’s strong, resonant voice and self possessed acting created an imperturbable Aunt Hannah, whose steely facade and imposing will prevails over Mr. Mosher’s protests that his daughter is much too young to be sent away.
Emmeline is cast into a debased factory life, surrounded by girls who are savvy, quick-to-gossip, and mean. She is lost in this harsh environment, whose cold efficiency is musically punctuated by rhythmically-driven phrases which leap jarringly from the monotone to the hysterically dictatorial every few bars, underscoring the emotionally discordant and utterly impersonal nature of the work and place. Helen Hassinger’s performance as the thirteen-year-old Emmeline appeared somewhat uncertain during much of this first act, with wide-eyed expressions that seemed to shift—at times wildly—giving an unsettled gloss to a performance that seemed to disclose an artistic uneasiness, rather than an anguished young girl. The chorus of mill girls delivered an assured and well-choreographed performance in each scene however, and the combined energy of all actors onstage kept the story’s momentum.
Emmeline’s innocence catches the attention of the mill owner’s son-in-law, Mr. Maguire, a handsome Irishman who begins lavishing attention on her, pleading “Let me be your father, let me be your friend.” Baritone Erik Earl Larson created a charismatic Maguire whose confidant wooing of a girl young enough to be his daughter came across as it should have, i.e. properly disturbing. Yet, Picker’s melodically-oriented vocal writing and tonal harmonies cradle both the ear and the mind, fashioning a distance between the audience and the sinister story unfolding onstage. One witnesses the morally abject seduction of a child by a married man and yet does not physically squirm in her seat, wondering how much of the appalling scene she can take. Instead, one looks and listens, simultaneously embraced by sonority and incredulous that Maguire is making moves on a thirteen-year-old, treating her as though she is a woman, telling her that his wife is cold and that he needs someone to throw his heart into.
His strategy works—she is hooked. Away from home, lonely, and still a child, Emmeline has no idea that what she thinks is love is actually rape. The seventh scene opens with Emmeline’s fatigued figure crumpling to the factory floor, as the other girls gossip about Maguire’s avoiding her for the past weeks. He enters with his wife, and an angry Emmeline nearly confronts him when she suddenly faints. He covertly slips her money and tells her she must leave the mill forever. The wife—played by Bridget Cappel—realizes her husband’s indecency and wraps her fancy shawl around the young Emmeline, walking out after shooting Maguire a knowing, indignant glare.
Now secretly living with her aunt, Emmeline’s pregnancy is kept private as Hannah arranges for the newborn’s adoption, insisting that it is better for her niece to remain ignorant of the baby’s sex in order that she more easily part with the child. Emmeline fantasizes that it is a daughter, and her aunt neither refutes nor encourages this assumption. Soprano Helen Hassinger enacts giving birth onstage, and in this visceral struggle, her acting seemed to come into its own, revealing Emmeline’s excruciating evolution through dismembered innocence. The uncertainty of her world closes Act One as an agitated orchestra conjures a clamorous wall of sound, ceasing violently beneath a cloak of blackness.
The second act begins 20 years later: Emmeline is 34, living in her hometown again, and consciously avoiding marriage. Her father—played by Joseph Hubbard—urges her to consider an eligible, moneyed bachelor, but she proclaims that “marriage is not for the likes of me.” An itinerant worker named Matthew Gurney roles into town. Just 20 years old, he possesses an innocence and warmth that immediately attracts Emmeline. Her renunciation of life and love dissolves as their bond develops and she teaches him to read. He tells her his secret—that back in Kansas where he is from, he has a child born out of wedlock from a woman who chased after him, “not the other way around.” Tenor Dennis Shuman’s voice possesses a lyrical quality that instantly convinces one that Matthew is an ingenuous, gentle soul who is telling the truth. Instead of condemning him for abandoning his own child and a woman he impregnated, one grasps how the damaged Emmeline finds solace in his good nature.
He asks her if she too has a secret, which she denies. But when Matthew becomes determined to marry her, Emmeline tells him that he hardly knows her at all. Inebriated by love, he ignores this warning, and the two wed despite the many hateful judgements cast upon them for their age difference. Of special note is Ashlee Lamar’s rendition of Harriet, Emmeline’s jealous, malicious sister. Ms. Lamar’s poignant acting and precise diction convey the character’s vitriol clearly enough for one to avoid the supertitles and indulge in Harriet’s deliciously odious persona.
Despite everything, the newly wed couple enjoy unbridled love—until Emmeline’s mother dies and Aunt Hannah comes to attend the funeral. Her initial approval of their happiness turns to horror when she realizes Matthew is none other than Emmeline’s child. In an emotional duet that at last reveals Hannah’s humanity, she compassionately laments to her niece that she has come for a second time to take Matthew away. The unwitting architect of Emmeline’s destiny, Hannah now must carry the weight of actions which have now undone two lives.
Matthew is disgusted and leaves Emmeline, ferociously accusing her of deceit. Emmeline’s father disowns her, pointing a shotgun at her breast as he follows his wife’s funeral procession. The entire town regards her a pariah, and even the priest urges her to leave, giving Emmeline a handful of cash to set out and never return. Defiant, she throws the money at his feet, rejecting all those that have repudiated her and refuses to run away.
In the opera’s most powerful scene, Helen Hassinger takes center stage, her hair loosened and body disheveled. Finally, the soprano’s artistic interpretation comes to electrified fruition. Emmeline recalls her life, the innocence ripped from her, the illusions of love and family, her blissful romance with Matthew, and the visceral love she feels knowing now that he is also her child. She recalls the factory’s rote monotony—the coordinated mechanics of the mill—and exalts the passion living within her, declaring she will wait for Matthew to return. Ms. Hassinger’s portrayal was strongest at this moment, which felt both like Emmeline’s death and rebirth—a renunciation to cruel fate and a welcoming of palpable ardor, despite her repulsive reality. Picker’s music is gripping, culminating in an orchestral and vocal ascent that left his audience clamoring for footing on the apogee of an implacable precipice.