West Coast Premiere of Emmeline, an opera in two acts

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photo of Carrie Hennessey (right) and Will Hart Meyer (left) by Eric Chazankin

It’s no exaggeration to say that Tobias Picker’s modern American opera Emmeline offers raw emotional power and transcendent beauty. One of the many things that distinguish Emmeline from traditional opera is its use of fine dramatic acting combined with operatic singing that, yes, you can actually understand without supertitles. It’s real Americana with Greek tragedy at its moving, beating heart.

This true story was first dramatized in a 1980 book Emmeline by Judith Rossner. Like many poor young girls in 19th-century New England, the real-life Emmeline was sent to work in a textile mill, but things went from bad to worse in a cruel twist of taboo-shattering fate, and the condemnation of others ultimately destroyed her. Nearly a century after her death, she was the subject of the 1988 PBS documentary ‘Sins of Our Mothers’. New York composer Tobias Picker happened to be watching that day. In later interviews, he said that he had such a visceral reaction, and was so moved by what he saw, that he felt he had “no choice” but to tell her story. The result was Emmeline, his first opera, with poet JD McClatchy as librettist. It had its world premiere at the 1996 Santa Fe Opera Festival to critical acclaim.

Its West Coast premiere at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater is presented through a collaboration of superior talent. Lyric soprano Carrie Hennessey brings exquisite vocal purity and range to the title role. We witness, through her vivid stage presence, the full depth of Emmeline’s innocent joy, love and pain. Charismatic baritone Will Hart Meyer’s interpretation of Matthew Gurney, Emmeline’s uneducated, sweetly earthy young man, is a touching counterpoint. The role of puritanical Aunt Hannah, whose actions have consequences that are not revealed until near the story’s end, is delivered with great power by contralto Cary Rosko. Other accomplished singers include Robert Stafford as the caddish Mr. Maguire, Kimberly Anderman as Emmeline’s sister Harriet, and Brian Rosen as her father Henry. It’s interesting to note that many of the cast, like the truly wonderful 12-member Mill Girls chorus, are under the age of 18.

Elly Lichtenstein’s meticulous stage direction brings Picker’s work to life in sharp but sensitive focus. The stage’s many transitions move with grace, from funerals to textile mills, to forests and fields, to childbirth and weddings. Scenic designer David Wright has created a simple, beautiful set in earth tones that suggest the austerity and bleakness of Emmeline’s world. A backdrop with its sepia-toned projected images seems almost like another character. It gently helps the storytelling by establishing the scene, time and place. Lisa Eldredge’s costumes and Ann Woodhead’s choreography lend a true period feel to the production.

Although Picker’s musical arrangement has been scaled down to chamber version by Samuel Bill to fit the small venue, the orchestra is of high caliber. Music director Nina Shuman is intently focused on the intricate score, which ranges from tonal to nontonal, harmonic to dissonant, and includes period songs, melodies and anthems. An example of American folk music used to high dramatic (and romantic) effect: in a pivotal moment, Emmeline’s heart is captured at once by young Matthew’s wistful harmonica playing; it's a lovely melodic interlude that lingers as a haunting memory, carrying the story forward to its bittersweet, tragic conclusion.

In its opening night, the production had only minor issues. One of the final arias dragged a bit, and some of the staging in Act I seemed a little cramped for want of space. Because Cinnabar has no orchestra pit, the 13-piece orchestra was positioned offstage, to the right of the audience. This made it challenging at times for the performers, who had to keep looking offstage for – and sometimes missing - their cues from the conductor.

In overall scope and achievement, Cinnabar’s presentation of Emmeline makes for a thrilling experience not to be missed.

When: Performances May 28 to June 12, 2010
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 9; 3 p.m. Sunday, June 6
Tickets: $32 to $38
Location: Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma CA
Phone: 707-763-8920
Website: www.cinnabartheater.org