The Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Opera Theater, led by Artistic Director Dona D. Vaughn, presented alumnus and composer Tobias Picker and late poet J. D. “Sandy” McClatchy’s American verismo opera “Emmeline” (1996), after Judith Rossner’s historical novel, for four double-cast performances, from April 25 to 28. I attended on the second night and heard the second cast, conducted by MSM alumnus George Manahan and directed by Thaddeus Strassberger, who updated the action, set in Maine and Massachusetts, from the 19th to the 20th century, its themes, doomed love, hypocrisy, and ostracism relevant in both those times, as well as today.
Thirteen year-old Emmeline Mosher is hustled off by her Aunt Hannah, as inexorable as Suor Angelica’s aunt, to support her family by working in the textile mill, where the girl’s supervisor, Mr. Maguire, a dashing cad, seduces and impregnates her. Aunt Hannah keeps the baby a secret from everyone, including Emmeline’s parents, and stealthily gets the boy into the hands of adoptive parents. Even Emmeline knows neither the child’s gender nor fate. When Emmeline marries the younger Matthew Gurney, leave it to Aunt Hannah to recognize him as Emmeline’s child and reveal his identity to one and all at Emmeline’s mother’s funeral. Matthew abandons Emmeline, the town turns against her, the Pastor tries to get her to leave, but Emmeline chooses to wait where she is: she found her child once and Matthew may come back.
Blair Cagney lent the title role a strong soprano and equally strong presence. Strassberger’s frank staging found her vomiting on the party table, at a gathering of her co-workers at the mill, and going into labor at the end of the first act, with Aunt Hannah facilitating the birth. Polished high tenor and MSM alumnus Philippe L’Esperance was Emmeline’s highway worker son and swain, Matthew, and the two engaged in some high power emoting when the secret was out and he knocked apart the house that he was building for them. Mezzo-soprano Alana Fraize was aptly relentless as the icy, meddling Aunt Hannah, preaching at Emmeline even as her water broke. Baritone Jimin Park was the slick Maguire, whose idea of a gift for the teenager was glitzy Victoria’s Secret lingerie, which Emmeline was wearing when he ravaged her in the local library. His wife threw a drink at him at the company fête, after Emmeline threw up, and the Mrs. realized that her mate was responsible for the girl’s condition. Soprano Hannah Friesen was Emmeline’s fast and hostile sister Harriet, who helped stir up and lead the protestors that wanted the outcast out of town, and bass Robert Ellsworth Feng was Pastor Avery, calling down hellfire and brimstone and ready to pay Emmeline to go away. Weichang Wang, Katharine Burns, Erin Reppenhagen, Alexander Mason, Seung Chan Hong, and Ann Marie Bjerke completed the cast. The women of the mill collaborated on a festive song at the party, before it went sour, and sang “Rock of Ages” in the wedding scene, while some of Emmeline’s family and friends provided catty counterpoint about the age difference between bride and groom.
Designs were by Paul Tate dePoo III (sets), Terese Wadden (costumes), JAX Messenger (lighting), and Anne Ford-Coates (hair and makeup). The updating found cars mentioned, television on stage, as well as boxes from Lowe’s and other contemporary stores in prominence, but a reference to Kansas as a territory instead of a state remained.
The impressively refurbishing of the auditorium, Neidorff-Karpati Hall, merits mention. Visit www.msmnyc.edu
for information about performances scheduled.