In Francesca Zambello’s recent exclusive interview, she told Blasting News that, regrettably, The Crucible—Robert Ward’s second of eight operas, from 1961—doesn’t get frequent outings by professional opera companies. And indeed a quick Web search reveals it is chiefly the province of colleges and universities. Yet its July 23 premiere at The Glimmerglass Festival proves the wisdom of leaving this sweeping, tightly cohesive drama to the professionals, particularly if guided by the hands of Francesca Zambello, who also staged and directed this seminal work, and of conductor Nicole Paiement.

They sent the unspoken message out to the universe: Amateurs, beware!

Vivid aesthetic

The designers Neil Patel (sets), Jessica Jahn (costumes) and Mark McCullough (lighting) created the perfect gloomy ambience for 1790s New England. The unit set formed distinct locales for each act, all suggesting confinement: Elizabeth Parrish’s bedroom (I), John and Elizabeth Proctor’s home (II), a courtroom (III) and a prison (IV), with two cellblocks and a forum for executions. Period costumes were Puritanical black and grey with welcome subtle splashes of color.

Who’s who

Four well-known singers inhabited the principal roles:

  • Rumored to be unwell, baritone Brian Mulligan showed no signs of being of the ill ilk, altering passionate declamation with soaring lyricism in more than healthy tones.
  • Powerhouse mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is Elizabeth Proctor, the faithful wife wounded by her husband’s sole indiscretion. She sang gloriously, whether pathos or outrage.
  • Bass-baritone David Pittsinger projects John Hale’s unhypocritical selflessness, and his gorgeous timbre of burnished oak would make anyone want to heed him—yet surprisingly few do.
  • As the sanctimonious union of Church and State, Judge Danforth, tenor Jay Hunter Morris stalwartly slithered among tones to convey snarly, stoic cynicism, set to strains of utter pomposity.

No minor roles

The 14 voices in secondary and supporting roles, rising from the Young Artist program, must all be poised on the brink of major career discoveries.

Naming them all would sound like an insincere Oscar acceptance speech, yet whom to omit is a thankless, unforgivable task.

The ladies

Zoie Reams as the Barbadian Tituba and Helena Brown as Rebecca Nurse make one wish operas were sung exclusively by steely, velvety contraltos. Sopranos Gabriella Sam and Maren Weinberger as Ann Putnam and Mary Warren, respectively, are both pure voices, the former robust and penetrating, the latter gymnastically agile.

Soprano Ariana Wehr as the conniving Abigail Williams has an uncanny ability to send gleaming bolts into the clear blue.

And “gentlemen”

Towering baritone Michael Miller mellifluously intones the role of unlikable, wealthy landowner Thomas Putnam, believed to be driving the accusations of devilry to snap up coveted real estate from landowners dispatched by the noose. No one that matters believes his counter-accusers. Guess who defends him nonetheless.

Tenors Frederick Ballentine and Ian Koziara sang their respective roles as the overly-concerned-with-his-social-position clergyman Samuel Parris and the odious bailiff Ezekiel Cheever with verve and vastly distinct vocal character, one’s pinging and intense, the other’s as slippery as Judge Danforth’s.

As the good Giles Corey, Chaz’men Williams-Ali’s supple yet powerful instrument encompasses passion and grief. He is a fully invested actor.

The leader of them all

Maestra Nicole Paiement received a deservedly rousing ovation at final curtain calls. Small in stature, she is a gigantically fierce musician and obviously has gained the huge orchestra’s respect. She drew from them lush orchestral color, vivid rhythm and kept tension taut in this inexorably fast-paced drama. All of which begs the question: Are no other professional opera companies brave enough or even capable of doing this unforgettable opera the justice it deserves?

The Crucible, at The Glimmerglass Festival, till August 27.

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