Watching Kirke Mechem’s new opera of “Pride and Prejudice,” which received its concert premiere by the Redwood Symphony at Cañada College on Saturday, April 6, one wonders — as the composer did — why nobody ever previously turned Jane Austen’s classic novel into an opera.
It’s full of strong and distinctive characters, it has an appealing and emotion-laden plot that’s enhanced by underlining it with music, it’s full of dance and spectacle. This is the very stuff of opera. For 15 years, Mechem — a distinguished local composer with several previous operas and much choral music under his belt — has been crafting this work, condensing the story down to opera libretto size while keeping faith with Austen’s original, and writing appropriate music.
The libretto is ingeniously written, efficiently condensing the plot (there are only three Bennet sisters, for instance), often using Austen’s own words and filling in gaps intelligently. Watching Mr. Collins (witty baritone Greg Poirier) transferring his affection from Lizzie Bennet to Charlotte Lucas in real time neatly covers a major plotline even more effectively than the book does. Only in the second half of Act 2 do gaps develop in the plot logic as too many threads need to be wrapped up at once, and too much is left to the viewer’s memory of reading the book. For the most part it’s a successful and clever adaptation.
There are few setpiece arias in this opera. The most effective is a setting of Sara Teasdale’s poem “Let It Be Forgotten,” for Jane Bennet (elegant soprano Ellen Leslie) to sing when she fears that her lover Bingley (equally dignified tenor Andrew Metzger) has deserted her. For the most part the vocal lines are through-composed and nearly continuous in a declamatory, lyrical recitative style. Eugene Brancoveanu puts his powerful and clearly-enunciated baritone through its gentlest and most elegant paces as Mr. Darcy, letting loose only at the one point Darcy becomes angry, in response to Lizzie’s accusation that he mistreated Wickham. Betany Coffland as Elizabeth is a light and high-voiced mezzo, with beautiful tones and strong projection but not as forceful as her Darcy. The strongest female voice in the cast was soprano Amy Foote as the feckless younger sister Lydia.
Mechem’s music is not only attractive, it’s busy and evocative. Vocal lines often reveal character, as with Mrs. Bennet (lively and vivid soprano Anja Strauss) erupting in peals of ornamental notes at words she wishes to emphasize, like “love,” or Miss Bingley (rising young soprano Brennah Kemmerly) going monotonic to reveal the insincerity of her greetings.
The orchestra, playing tirelessly for 2 1/2 hours under music director Eric K’s efficient baton, is an active participant in the plot. Mechem is not merely providing a platform for the singers to show off on. Repeated emphatic cadences, sometimes emphasized by percussion, underline the definitiveness of every pronouncement from Lady Catherine de Bourgh (delightfully embodied in all her loftiness by mezzo Deborah Rosengaus). Dances at house balls enliven Act I, and a jig at Netherfield catches up the vocal lines into its lively rhythm.
The activity of the orchestra, however welcome for the story, did compete with the voices for clarity. Some cut through better than others, the chorus of townspeople in the back having particular difficulty. The supertitles were welcome, not just for text but for describing action, as this concert performance omitted costumes and had virtually no interaction or movement aside from entrances and exits. Under the stage direction of Debra Lambert, who teaches at Notre Dame de Namur University and brought along a number of other university personnel and alumnae to help out in cast and crew, the production ran clearly and comprehensibly. This show was about the music: both composition and performance were a real treat.
Redwood Symphony concludes its subscription season on June 1 with ballet music by film composer Danny Elfman and a tribute to jazz great Ray Charles by Pulitzer-winning composer Du Yun.