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Monday, October 24, 2016

Opera Review: The Brontë Theorem

The Center for Contemporary Opera unveils Jane Eyre.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It's up to the woman upstairs: Jennifer Zetlan as Jane Eyre. 
Photo by Steven Pisano © 2016 Steven Pisano Photography, courtesy CCO.

One of the best things about the new operatic adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is that it doesn't tell the whole story. Written by composer Louis Karchin, this opera is at once a retelling of the celebrated novel and something of a throwback to the way opera were written a century ago. The show was mounted in a handsome production at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, as the big-budget centerpiece of the current festival season of the Center for Contemporary Opera. The libretto (by Diane Osin begins the tale in Part III of the novel, with Jane (Jennifer Zetlan) already situated as a governess at Thornfield, the vast and spooky house owned by Edward Rochester (Ryan MacPherson.).

In the opening scene, Jane discovers that Rochester's bed is on fire with him in it. She saves her boss' life, establishing the relationship between the two characters, a kind of symbiosis that made this book a paragon of early proto-feminist literature and Jane herself one of the most fascinating and beloved figures in 19th century fiction. From this point, the opera tells the story in a straightforward manner, with Ms. Zetlan relating Jane's miserable early life in a series of monologues that occasionally become full-fledged arias.

The first two acts center firmly on the courtship of Jane and Rochester, from the questionable methods that the latter engages in to get her to confess her love, to the arrival of the horrible truth: that marriage is impossible because Rochester is already married. His wife, described as both "mad" and "evil", is confined to the Thornfield attic. She escapes more than once, setting the aforementioned fire in her husband's bed and eventually, burning down the entire house and perishing in the fire. To their credit, the opera's creators make Bertha Mason-Rochester an external threat: she never appears onstage, and is (thankfully) denied her own immolation scene.

Back to Jane Eyre, a star-making turn for Ms. Zetlan. Throughout the three acts, she serves as the decent, moral center of the story, a cockeyed optimist despite the horror of her upbringing and the truth about her duplicitous boss. In the last act, she blossoms into full maturity, facing down the marriage proposal of St. John Rivers and ultimately deciding to return to the now-crippled Mr. Rochester. Here, the opera comes to a close in a long, almost Straussian duet, shifting into bright major keys as the finally united couple walk off together in soon-to-be-wedded bliss.

Mr. Karchin's score eschews traditional arias for a shifting, chromatic orchestral fabric. His score is inventive, melodic and leitmotivic, with dark themes indicating the lurking Bertha and a bright, rising melody for Jane. As Rochester, Mr. MacPherson gave an impressive and ardent performance, despite (or perhaps because of) the narcissistic, duplicitous nature of the character. Since Jane is passive in the first act, he begins the work as the opera's driving force. It is only following the disastrous wedding scene that Jane takes control of her life and of the opera's final act.

It is not easy to turn prose into poetry, and Diane Osen's libretto can be credited with compressing the novel into three acts, mostly by hinting at the horrors of Jane's childhood that Charlotte Bronte lingers over in the early chapters of the book. However, the detriment of the text is Ms. Osen's over-reliance on rhyming in the sung lyrics, easier perhaps for the singers involved but something of a torment to the English language, especially when from a phrase a rhyme she tries to salvage.

The opera has strong parts for supporting characters. Thomas Maglioranza doubled as Rivers and Roderick Ingraham. Kimberly Giordano impressed in the role of the maid Ms. Fairfax, and Jessica Thompson and Jessica Best were effective in multiple supporting parts. The rich, wind and brass heavy score was led by Sara Jobin, who struggled to damp the large orchestra in the over-bright acoustic of the Kaye Playhouse, but excelled in the sweeping tonal picture that depicted the travels of Jane and the destruction of Thornfield in the final act. 

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