Emmeline, Tobias Picker

Dicapo Opera Theatre

13th September, 2009

How I met my mother...

Dicapo Opera Theatre successfully continued its ongoing relationship with the composer Tobias Picker last week, in a chamber reduction of his powerful 1996 opera Emmeline. Picker serves as artistic advisor for this enterprising, petite company, which, at only 200 seats, regularly produces not only his operas but an ambitious variety of both standard and contemporary pieces. On this evening, the small size of the house served for an unusually intimate experience with a very intimate story.

Picker’s painful drama follows the story of Emmeline, 13 years old in 1841, as she is taken from her impoverished family by her aunt Hannah to work in a Massachusetts textile mill. The lonely Emmeline is soon seduced by her handsome boss, Mr. Maguire, but is dismissed when she is discovered to be pregnant. Her aunt takes her away to have the child, and gives it up for adoption. We then fast-forward twenty years, to when Emmeline is a confirmed spinster of 34, caring for her ill mother, despite persistent marriage proposals. She dreams of her baby girl named Maryanne, and regrets knowing nothing of her child. When a new young boarder named Matthew shows up, they are immediately attracted, and he quickly breaks down the emotional barriers she has constructed, winning her over and marrying her, despite their age difference. When Aunt Hannah arrives in town, she warmly accepts Emmeline’s marriage, but upon learning Matthew’s full name, drops the bomb that he is actually Emmeline’s lost child; Emmeline never actually knew the gender of her child, simply imagining “Maryanne.” Matthew runs, hurt and disgusted, and Emmeline is asked to leave the town, but she refuses, wishing to wait for Matthew’s return. The opera closes with her final aria, revisiting the scenes of her life, and finishes with her, utterly alone and rejected.

The depth of the misery in this story is continuously accentuated by Picker’s relentless, linear score. The weight of the sustained strings alone requires some serious singing from the young cast, at which they succeeded remarkably well. Kristin Sampson shone as Emmeline, handling not only the transition from 13 to 34 with convincing physical aplomb, but traversing an incredibly challenging vocal part with evenness and beauty. The rangy, powerful singing required of her lyric voice seemed natural and never forced, and her dramatic focus drew the audience in throughout the story.

Sampson was supported by a cast of big voices and committed actors. Iulia Merca’s Aunt Hannah Watkins was an imposing and warm-toned contralto who also made the difficult tessitura sound easy, but her heavy accent unfortunately rendered her English mostly unintelligible. I was impressed with Zeffin Quinn Hollis, who did not shy away from making Mr. Maguire a sympathetic villain, effectively communicating humanity in his warm baritone and tender looks, even as he took advantage of the young girl. Hungarian tenor Zoltán Nyári also had accented English, but fared better with intelligibility, and used his clear tenor charmingly, if less evenly than some of his colleagues. In smaller roles, Lisa Chavez sang vibrantly as Mrs. Bass the boarding house mistress, and Lynne Abeles as Sophie and Christina Rohm as Harriet Mosher sang with clear tone and brilliance in the top. Sam Smith as Emmeline’s father Henry and Peter Campbell as Pastor Avery are also worth a mention for their worthy supporting contributions.

Samuel Bill, conductor and arranger of the reduction, led the 25 piece orchestra with purpose, effectively conveying the dark ambience of Picker’s intense, inexorable score, the lightened texture notwithstanding. There were times I wished for more reprieve from the loud, sustained, linear lines required of the singers and strings, but it certainly served the heaviness of this drama. The atmospheric winds in the first act, as well as the sudden thinning of the musical texture at Matthew’s entrance were welcome respite, and Emmeline’s attraction to this lighter spirit was clear, but he seemed to join the heaviness all too soon. Still, the unified instrumental texture created a through-line to the opera, rendered particularly necessary by inconsistent staging.

Considering all the strength on the stage and in the pit, it was terribly disappointing that the production itself was not more successful. Hungarian stage director Róbert Alföldi, from Dicapo’s partnership with the Opera Competition and Festival with Mezzo Television in Hungary, was less focused than his talented cast, and his staging was distractingly variable. He could have used John Farrell’s spare sets to better effect, as they morphed between scenes, using primarily black and white curtains on three sides, with an awkwardly enormous, multi-purpose black wooden box that the cast hauled on and off and around the stage. The second act inexplicably added the first color, in the living room set of the Mosher home, furniture which then piece by piece mysteriously slid off stage by itself, an effect that would have been compelling if it had been used more purposefully throughout the piece (particularly with the awkward box). Alföldi’s minimalist staging had some ideas that may have worked had they been more consistent, but he would have fared better if he had simply trusted the material. Generally the cast walked stiffly in purposeful right angles, perhaps to indicate the strict nature of the society and their own morality, but that was not clear, as at times it disintegrated into naturalism (to my relief but confusion) or surrealism (as in Mrs. Bass’ enigmatic dance moves). The few factory scenes were the most visually engaging, with the compelling female chorus corporeally representing the looms at which they worked; that kind of creativity should have permeated the production throughout. Instead, the overall effect was stiff and confusing, saved only by the steady, focused commitment of the laudable cast.

The Oedipal nature of Emmeline was rendered all the more dark and disturbing by the humanity that Picker draws out of each character; his truthful writing made their pain feel real and new, the way pain actually feels. If the director had trusted Picker’s vision more, the burden would not have been entirely upon the singers. But Sampson and her colleagues carried that burden boldly, singing beautifully and truly to the lonely conclusion.

Bottom line: Committed young singers save unfocused production


Whitney Scott


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Production Credits

Conductor: Samuel Bill
Stage Director: Róbert Alföldi
Set Design: John Farrell
Costume Design: Sándor Daróczi
Lighting Design: Susan Roth


Emmeline Mosher: Kristin Sampson
Aunt Hannah Watkins: Iulia Merca
Matthew Gurney: Zoltán Nyári
Mr. Maguire: Zeffin Quinn Hollis
Mrs. Bass: Lisa Chavez
Henry Mosher: Sam Smith
Hooker: David Gagnon
Sophie: Lynne Abeles
Harriet Mosher: Christina Rohm
Pastor Avery: Peter Campbell
Ella Burling: Kristen Lamb
Simon Fenton: Stephen Lavonier