By Chuck Lavazzi
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — In a 1989 New York Times article reflecting on his 1953 play The Crucible — the operatic version of which is receiving a brutally powerful production at this year’s Glimmerglass Festival — Arthur Miller wrote, “Political movements are always trying to position themselves against the unknown — vote for me and you’re safe.” The relevance to contemporary politics could hardly be more obvious.
In both the play and Robert Ward’s opera, winner of the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Music, fear stalks the streets of Salem Village. Many of the villagers are afraid of the land grab schemes of the wealthy Thomas Putnam, while his wife, Ann, is afraid that her numerous miscarriages are the work of supernatural forces. Reverend Parris, meanwhile, fears for the health of this daughter, Betty, who lies in bed with a mysterious illness.
The tensions and resentments in the village come to a head when Parris discovers his niece Abigail Williams and other village girls dancing in the woods with the Barbadian slave Tituba. Pressured by the witchcraft expert Reverend Hale and the girls, Tituba confesses to witchcraft.
Hale declares Satan’s hold broken, but Abigail and the other girls have tasted power for the first time in their repressed lives, and soon they’re staging regular demonstrations of “possession” for a kangaroo court, presided over by Deputy Governor Danforth, in which the accused are presumed guilty and an attempt at defense is considered a confession.
The list of accused includes Elizabeth Proctor, whose husband, John, had a clandestine affair with Abigail. Unable to convince Abigail to recant her accusation, he confesses to the affair in court to expose Abigail’s fakery, only to find it discounted and himself accused of witchcraft.
Proctor is offered a last chance to avoid the gallows if he signs a confession, but he refuses to blacken his name, inflict shame on his sons, and give Danforth the ammunition he needs to justify his reign of terror. As Proctor is led to the gallows, Hale pleads with Elizabeth to get him to sign, but she refuses. “He has found his name and his goodness now,” she says. “God forbid I take it from him.”
Bernard Stambler’s libretto considerably shortens and streamlines Miller’s play, which was inspired in part by the 1950s witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but leaves intact the searing indictment of the power of mob mentality and the moral corruption of politicians who feed on it. Today, the mob is on the Internet and social media, but the intellectually disreputable process is the same.
While nobody is likely to leave The Crucible whistling its tunes, Ward’s score possesses tremendous narrative power, high drama, and often unexpected beauty. A scene cut from the play but restored here, in which Proctor pleads with Abigail to forget him and spare Elizabeth’s life, is wonderfully lyrical, calling to mind the Gershwins’ “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” And the trial scenes have real visceral impact. Ward, who died in 2013, may not have had the distinctive harmonic or melodic style of, say, Copland or Bernstein, but The Crucible displays a sure sense of what works on stage.
The cast for the Glimmerglass production is impressive, with potent, accurate voices and credible acting skills. Leading the pack is baritone Brian Mulligan as John Proctor, with a big voice and dramatic stage presence. This is a key role, requiring plenty of vocal stamina and the ability to make the character’s crisis of conscience believable. Mulligan has both.
The women’s roles are critical, and director Francesca Zambello has assembled a fine ensemble to fill them. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, whose warm voice distinguished her Jane Seymour in Chicago Lyric’s Anna Bolena in 2014, racks up another success as the conflicted Elizabeth Proctor. Soprano Ariana Wehr is an aptly conniving Abigail, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams commands attention as Tituba, and soprano Maren Weinberger is a compelling Mary Warren, who tries to expose the fraud of Abigail and the other girls, only to succumb to peer pressure in the end. All three singers are part of the company’s Young Artists Program, which gives you some idea of how strong it must be.
Participants in the program turn in some very mature performances of the male roles as well. Those include baritone Michael Miller as the greedy Thomas Putnam; tenor Chaz’men Williams-Ali as Giles Corey, whose attempt to expose the girls’ fakery results in his own death; and tenor Frederick Ballentine as Rev. Parris. Among the older men, bass-baritone David Pittsinger stands out as Rev. Hale, whose regret is too little and too late, as does tenor Jay Hunter Morris (an artist in residence this year) as the arrogant Danforth. All of the performances in this large cast are strong, in fact.
Zambello’s direction is focused and theatrically on target. She creates compelling stage pictures and moves the many singers around clearly and efficiently. In the pit, Canadian conductor Nicole Paiement leads the polished orchestra in sympathetic and robust support. Glimmerglass’ purpose-built theater has excellent acoustics, allowing every note of the music to come through clearly.
The Glimmerglass Festival production of The Crucible runs through Aug. 27 in rotation with four other shows. For more information, click here.
Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX in St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Theater Circle and Music Critics Association of North America. Follow him @clavazzi, on Facebook, and at Stage Left.