“Little Women” shows off young talent: Sydney Conservatorium performs Mark Adamo’s opera of Alcott’s classic novel

Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s production of Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women, adapted from the novel by Louisa May Alcott

Review by Holly Champion


Soprano Jessica Westcott as Meg March and mezzo-soprano Anna McDougall as Jo March

Mark Adamo’s popular operatic version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel has now finally been given its Sydney premiere by the Conservatorium’s “opera school”.  Adamo’s lush timbres and exotic harmonies are excellently interpreted by musical director (and this evening’s conductor) Eduardo Diazmuñoz, with his orchestra of Con students. The young singers are highly impressive, in a happy blend of good casting, looks and acting, and great—if sometimes not quite fully mature—singing.

Presumably to allow as many students the chance to shine as possible, the production has been double-cast for several of the roles, with Cast A performing on opening night and Thursday 16th, and Cast B on Tuesday 14th and Saturday 18th. I had the pleasure of seeing Cast A on opening night. I sat in a seat that was a little too far forward for the high proscenium and—despite the fact that it is sung in English—the necessary supertitles. I had a crick in the neck, but came away happy nevertheless.

As is usual with singers of this age, the women have slightly more developed voices and acting ability than the men. This makes Little Women, with its abundance of strong, young female roles, a natural fit for student productions such as this. However, the lads here are still very fine. Joel Scott’s performance as the attractive boy-next-door Laurie was a little tentative to begin with, but once he warmed into the role this was a suitably energetic, romantic, ever-so-slightly arrogant but also often amusing portrayal, aided by his boyish good looks and height. His lyric tenor voice is naturally quite light and lacks a little richness (this may appear with age and experience) but he exhibits some surprisingly powerful vocal moments, and generally shows great promise as a performer, particularly for roles in the lighter operas and operettas.

Despite Laurie’s early unrequited love for the tomboyish Jo, he eventually meets his match in Amy—the youngest of the four March sisters—played superbly by Maia Andrews as flighty and arrogant but quite sweet. Andrews is particularly well-cast, and she transitions perfectly from thin adolescent to elegant young woman. Andrews’s sweet shimmering soprano really shone in Act II, particularly in the lovely duet moments with Scott.

Soprano Jessica Westcott played the eldest March sister Meg with sincerity and aplomb, though as a soprano it was understandable that her lower register sometimes sounded a little lost among the lovely harmonies, as this is technically a mezzo role.  Soprano Corinne Parker, who sings Meg on the alternate nights, may face a similar challenge.

Ginger-haired baritone Alexander Knight plays Laurie’s impoverished tutor John Brooke in all four performances, characterising him as an adorable dork who earnestly courts Westcott’s Meg. His rich and very pleasing baritone shows flexibility and depth. Westcott seemed older than Knight, which made their characters’ opposite age difference (Meg is 19, Brooke 28) a little difficult to accept. However, like Scott and Andrews, these two had good onstage chemistry.

The same could not, unfortunately, be said for this evening’s pairing of McDougall’s Jo with her beloved Professor Bhaer, played by baritone Soonki Park. Park acted well, but was not suitably cast as the German academic. It is to be hoped that Andrew Williams is more convincing in the role on Tuesday and Saturday. Park had too little of the German accent and too much of his own Korean one, which made the lyrics particularly hard to follow, and McDougall’s Jo did not seem interested in him romantically. Vocally, however, Park’s performance was a sensuous delight: his “Kennst du das Land”—Adamo’s setting of Goethe— was one of the highlights of the evening.

Kathryn Williams as Alma (“Marmee”) March and Christopher Nazarian as Gideon March / Jo’s editor were charming and perfectly competent performers, though they had little opportunity to really glow. Soprano Audrey Gabor was endearing as fragile, sickly Beth. Her voice has bloomed into a sweet and balanced instrument since I last heard her sing several years ago, and her death scene was achingly beautiful; she gives the alternate Beth, Michelle Ryan, a hard act to follow. A surprise star of the production is Jermaine Chau as Cecelia March – her wonderfully comic, spot-on characterisation of this controlling, uppity old lady was more than matched by her impressively mature vocal performance. I have never seen anyone wield a cane so well!

The obvious star of the show however is Anna McDougall as Jo. Her supple, strong and colourful mezzo instrument, her admirable stamina and memory with this challenging, enormous role, and her obvious sense of humour and acting chops mark her out as one to watch. She is a natural for the rambunctious and “trouser” roles so often demanded of mezzos. Quite rightly, McDougall sings the lead role for all four performances.

Mezzo-soprano Anna McDougall as Jo March

Though the first few notes of the Overture were slightly wobbly, the orchestra very quickly settled into a polished, professional performance that supported but hardly ever overwhelmed the young singers. Josie Tam on piano was given plenty to do, with the piano onstage being frequently “played” by Beth, and Tam’s lavish chords had depth and appeal. The onstage babies’ squeaky cries, played by Toshiyushi Hosogaya and Alexander McNeil on the mouthpieces of their oboe and clarinet added a delightful moment of comedy in what was generally a serious production. In terms of sheer musical gorgeousness, I particularly loved the con sordine violin obbligato during the “Kennst du das Land” aria.

In terms of staging, the direction is believable and the set is simple but effective with its indoor/outdoor adaptability.  While it worked well for practical purposes, I found the use of visible stagehands dressed as Victorian housemaids faintly ridiculous, as it suggested a degree of wealth that—as was made quite plain in the libretto— the Marches did not possess.  Costumes by Hannah Lobelson were beautifully made and suited the characters well. However, their historical accuracy is very uneven. Though we are constantly informed via supertitles that the setting is Massachusetts and New York of the 1860s, the ladies’ costumes in particular spanned everything from the 1850s to the 1890s. I do not insist on absolute historical accuracy in opera by any means, but I can’t understand why the Conservatorium would invest so much of the budget into custom costumes and a fairly naturalistic style of production, and then undermine the realism with such a strange mish-mash of styles.

In general, however, director Narelle Yeo, as well as musical director Eduardo Diazmunoz, have done a splendid job. With limited resources, they have succeeded in creating a musically and visually convincing production of Adamo’s modern classic. It is particularly lovely to actually see youthful roles being performed by singers of the same age, and this production is full of promising opera stars of the future. Four stars. ****


Little Women plays at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s ground floor Music Workshop venue from 6:30 pm on Tuesday 14th and Thursday 16th October, and from 2 pm on Saturday 18th October.

Tickets are $50 for adults or $25 for concession, available at the City Recital Hall or online (with extra charges) at: http://www.cityrecitalhall.com/events/id/1614

Photographs reproduced courtesy of Anna McDougall (http://www.annamcdougall.com/)

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