One reason Opera Theatre of St. Louis draws opera lovers and serious opera writers from around the world is the company's willingness to take chances. Last Sunday night's American premiere of Jane Eyre, the opera adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Victorian novel, was typical of such risk-taking. The payoff is a fascinating production, drenched in the gothic spirit of the book, driven by an edgy, swirling score and sung to perfection by some of OTSL's finest young voices.
Frank Zappa once wrote a piece called "Music for Electric Violin and Low-Budget Orchestra." His goal was to create a big, complicated, classical-type sound within the economic constraints of a rock & roll budget. Music Theater Wales had a similar goal when the company commissioned composer Michael Berkeley and librettist David Malouf to create an opera out of Jane Eyre for the 2000 Cheltenham International Festival of Music. It's designed to be performed on a tight budget. The 28 characters in Brontë's 500-plus-page book have been whittled down to 5, and most of Jane's life was left on the cutting-room floor.
Now the story centers on her time at the Rochester family's aptly named Thornfield estate, where Jane falls in love with the gloomy master of the house. The feeling's mutual and they decide to marry. But Rochester has a tragic secret: On their wedding day it's revealed that he's already married to a nutjob who's imprisoned in (you guessed it) the attic of the manor house. Jane leaves but is reunited with Rochester after he's blinded in a fire set by the madwoman in the attic, who, conveniently, dies in the blaze. And they live happily ever after.
As Malouf pared down the story line, Berkeley hacked his orchestration to the bone. Here, though, the original setting, for a "chamber"-size group of a dozen or so musicians, has been expanded; Berkeley rewrote the string parts for a section double the size of the original. I asked the composer if this was intended to sweeten the sound for Middle America. Berkeley looked aghast. "Quite the contrary," he says, explaining that "it allowed the addition of more swirling textures" to the less harmonic string parts.
It also allows for more richly passionate swells as the lovers pledge their love, then renew their ardor in a later scene. Conductor Andreas Mitisek, making his OTSL debut, leads a fully engaged crew in a compelling reading of this simple-sounding but harmonically and rhythmically intense score.
Kelly Kaduce, who brought down the house with her OTSL debut in the title role of Sister Angelica in 2004, does not disappoint as Jane Eyre. Although the orchestration is thick and deep, Berkeley, who began his musical career as a singer, covers it with graceful melodies, and Kaduce wraps her luscious soprano pipes around the tunes.
There's little vocal interaction between the characters outside of a couple of brief love duets. Cast members get to harmonize for a few bars here and there but do not sing the duets and larger ensembles that enrich most operas. Still, Scott Hendricks as Edward, Robynne Redman as Mrs. Fairfax, Elizabeth Batton as the mad wife and Elizabeth Reiter as their ward play off Kaduce and one another effortlessly. Eerie offstage voices and choirs add to the mix, coming off more like musical instruments than like voices, adding depth to the sonic texture.
Like the score, Erhard Rom's set is deceptively simple. A series of flats insinuates the basic features of the Rochester mansion. To alter the setting and mood, Rom projects images and colors over these plane surfaces. In combination with Mark McCullough's lighting, the projected images accent changes in the interior lives of the characters. Colin Graham's no-frills direction matches tempo of this streamlined classic. There's not a jigger of waste in this brisk, intermissionless 80 minutes.