by SOPHIE KERMAN
The Minnesota Opera has done a brave thing by commissioning John Patrick Shanley and Douglas J. Cuomo to write an opera based on Shanley’s Pulitzer- & Tony-winning play (and Oscar-nominated movie) Doubt. With the amount of acclaim the play and the movie have gotten over the years, a third adaptation could be seen as either redundant or as a great artistic experiment. It turns out that the opera is both: although the opera mostly covers the same ground as its predecessors, its presentation is extremely different. If you are interested in the various potentials of theater, film, and opera to explore psychological and interpersonal challenges, this new adaptation provides an interesting and enjoyable new perspective.
It helps that the music is good, too. With previous work that spans many different genres (including the theme for HBO’s Sex and the City), Cuomo is clever in his use of different instruments and timing; if you listen for it, you hear a kind of auditory wit in his score that mimics the verbal wit of Shanley’s script. Though it doesn’t have the same kind of melodic hooks as pop music (or classical operas), Doubt is much more accessible than what you might expect of a contemporary opera. It won’t scare off opera novices, but you shouldn’t expect to be humming arias as you leave, either: most of the opera is in the form of sung dialogue, rather than the kind of passionate outpourings that traditional opera has trained many audiences to expect.
Instead, the script demands strong theatrical performances from the singers, who provide compelling portrayals of their characters. Though Kevin Newbury‘s blocking tends to be somewhat static when the kids aren’t on stage, the adult leads (Matthew Worth as Father Flynn, Christine Brewer as Sister Aloysius, and Adriana Zabala as Sister James, as well as Denyce Graves in a stand-out scene as Mrs. Miller) are expressive singers with good on-stage chemistry. (Having seen a dress rehearsal in which many singers were saving their voices, I can hardly comment on the vocal quality, but even at half-power, they convinced me that the Minnesota Opera has gotten a truly top-notch cast.)
Shanley and Cuomo had a unique challenge when transposing a drama about uncertainty into a larger-than-life genre like opera. The fact that the lines are sung, rather than spoken, does little to enhance the dramatic tension, but the music does well to support – and occasionally cast doubt upon – the characters’ opposing moral convictions. Robert Brill‘s sets are also a perfect mirror to the different worlds of priests, nuns, church and school, while Japhy Weideman‘s lighting is sometimes distractingly beautiful, with rays of light crisscrossing the stage that capture both the religious spirit and the characters’ tendencies to interpret events in a moral black and white.
The youth ensemble also gets a lot of stage time and provides a light-hearted contrast to the gravity of the adult world. While the adults grapple with a sex scandal, the kids are figuring out their first kisses and how to deal with rejection. This is probably the only opera where “booger” is featured prominently by the chorus, and that in itself might be worth the cost of the ticket.
The Minnesota Opera has made it a point of commissioning new works, providing audiences with a fresh look at what opera can achieve. For Doubt, we have an added challenge not only to forget what we know about opera, but to forget what we know about the original play and movie. This production does not have the grand arias or the plot-heavy machinations of your traditional opera; nor is it as sharply dialogued as the non-operatic versions. What it may do better than its inspirations, however, is delve into the thematic elements of Father Flynn’s predicament: the conflicts between faith and uncertainty, the differences between tradition and conservatism, the challenge of struggling alone and the bond of being lost together. It is rare for an opera to provide more questions than answers; Doubt provides a fresh, engaging, provocative argument for what opera can contribute to the theater world.
Doubt, libretto by John Patrick Shanley and composed by Douglas J. Cuomo, presented by the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Theater, 345 Washington Street, St. Paul, MN 55102. January 26-February 3, 2013. Tickets at http://www.mnopera.org/season/2012-2013/doubt.