Hannah Penn 20100725 SDIM2859

Mezzo soprano Hannah Penn sang Jo

“Little Women” is one of those novels whose characters and story are so firmly known, at least by people of a certain generation, that it’s a little dangerous to try mounting it in another form. The story has also got a lot of material in it.  A long movie might work. A play might be a bit confining. Opera seems even more difficult than theater — especially considering the story revolves around the lives of at least  four different main characters, the four March sisters.

Adamo is not impervious to the difficulties of adaptation and some of the ironies of his artistic choices here. “Little Women” has been done as an opera once, an operetta once, a televised musical once and as a Broadway musical twice. None of those shows is produced today, if that’s any indication of their success. In her novel, as Adamo writes in his program notes, Alcott says that “Jo wouldn’t be put into an Opera by any means.” (He missed, though, the irony that this most female of novels is now being set as opera by a male.)

All that preamble aside, Eugene Opera’s “Little Women,” which opened tonight at the Hult Center’s and, sadly, has its final performance on Sunday afternoon, is an excellent, light, diverting and  lushly beautiful rendition of the familiar story into music. This is one of two stripped-down productions this season from the opera (the other being “Turn of the Screw”), with minimal set and performed in the Hult’s small Soreng Theater.

But it’s not opera lite by any means. Adamo’s score, performed by a small orchestra conducted by music director Andrew Bisantz, is full and lovely, and this is far more than a staged reading. From the opening scene, with the four sisters singing the beautiful “Four Little Chests All In A Row,” the music and story move seamlessly together.

Hannah Penn, the Portland mezzo who sings the main role of Jo, dominates the stage from the moment the lights go up with her strong, expressive voice; she’s as good an actor as she is a singer, and she carries the story along well. Brett Sprague is solid as her romantic foil, Laurie, and Jocelyn Claire Thomas’s soprano, sometimes piercing as a whip crack, makes for a perfectly lively Amy.

A number of cast substitutions were apparently made after the program was printed, according to an insert page, and the program, oddly, calls for two intermissions in this two-act show (there was, in fact, just one).

The opera is sung in English, most of which is easy to follow, but there are supertitles in case you miss a line.

Go see this on Sunday if you can. Saturday night’s audience was a little thin, and this production deserves much more attention than I’m afraid it’s going to get.

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