It’s good to remember, at moments like the present one, that our nation has survived some seriously divisive periods in the past. Take the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn came close to dragging the entire government into a paranoid black hole of their own vindictive creation. Or, going back even further, to the colonial period, take the deadly year of 1692, when 19 people were executed by hanging after being found guilty of witchcraft by the courts of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
If you are playwright Arthur Miller, you take both, holding McCarthyism up to the light shed by the sordid spectacle of the Salem Witch Trials as he did in The Crucible. This weekend, Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) will present the lesser-known but equally fascinating opera version of Miller’s masterpiece. American composer Robert Ward wrote the opera in 1962 under the watchful eye of the playwright himself, yet with enough freedom to craft a distinctive treatment that’s worthy of a consistent presence in the 21st-century performing repertoire.
Coming in well under two hours long, and with an astounding 14 named roles, Ward’s Crucible is, as operas go, action-packed. “There’s no filler,” asserted OSB’s general director and maestro, Kostis Protopapas. “It’s a very theatrical piece, and it demands detailed interpretations from the entire cast.” Its chief strength, according to Protopapas, is “the setting of the text — the pacing is very good.” This is the result both of Miller’s understanding that an operatic treatment would demand significant cuts — it takes longer to sing lines than to say them — and of the degree to which a musical-theater situation suits the material, which is full of conflicting, overlapping voices. If there’s one advantage the opera has over the dramatic stage, it’s the fact that in opera, overlapping dialogue is the rule rather than the exception.
With a cast that includes what Protopapas described as his “favorite singing actors,” and rising star stage director Stephanie Havey, this production looks set to soar in the Lobero, where OSB recently staged a very successful Eugene Onegin. Look for stellar performances from bass/baritone Wayne Tigges as John Proctor; mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock as his wife, Elizabeth; and soprano Anya Matanovic as his lover/nemesis, Abigail Washburn. And did you ask for a tenor? Well that’s good, because this score has a great tenor role in the form of Judge Danforth, who will be sung by Corey Bix. Expect him to fire things up in the second half with his puritanical fulminations from the bench.
Of course, no version of The Crucible would be complete without a fabulous Tituba to raise the specter of the Devil himself with her colorful imagination, and this production has one in Santa Barbara’s own mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen. Another popular Santa Barbara singer and UCSB professor, tenor Benjamin Brecher, will sing the plum role of Giles Corey. Corey’s the brave citizen who defies the witch hunters and ends up crushed to death for telling the truth.
On that gruesome note, it’s worth saying that, although Miller fictionalized his account in order to fulfill the requirements of tragic drama, these characters are based on real people, and Miller didn’t toy with the core truths of the historical record when he put what happened to them onstage. By building the awful conflict at the heart of John Proctor’s personal journey into a kind of existential dilemma, Miller, and by extension, Ward, have created a tale that demands periodic retelling. Whenever the expediency of lies threatens to extinguish the moral necessity of the truth, we ought to turn our attention once more to the lessons of Salem, and there’s no better way to do that than through this beautiful opera.
4•1•1 | The Crucible plays on Friday, April 26, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 28, 2:30 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call (805) 963-0761 or see lobero.org.