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Union Avenue Opera, 2016

Steve Callahan – Broadway World

Our beloved Union Avenue Opera has captured a lovely prize. They've opened the opera Doubt with the legendary Christine Brewer. Ms. Brewer is one of the great Wagnerian sopranos of our era and she is almost a home-town girl, having got her start with Opera Theatre of St. Louis some thirty-five years ago.

Doubt, as a play by John Patrick Shanley, won the Pullitzer Prize in 2005. It has been produced simply everywhere. It's been a block-buster movie with Meryl Streep. (Shanley wrote the screen-play.) And now it has become an opera with a score by Douglas J. Cuomo and a libretto by Shanley. This is, to my best knowledge, the first production of this opera since its premiere three years ago at the Minnesota Opera where Ms. Brewer created the role of Sister Aloysius. And she and Union Avenue Opera do a splendid job with it here.

Shanley wrote his play only a year or so after headlines of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal shocked the world. "How opportunistic," I thought, and I was prepared to dismiss the play. But then I saw it, and I was impressed with Shanley's objectivity and with his masterly craftsmanship.

Back in the '60's our world was devolving into a bumper-sticker culture where political and cultural differences were expressed in terse phrases of adamantine rigidity: "I'm right! Everybody else is evil!" I didn't buy it; I wanted to make a bumper-sticker that said, "COULD YOU BE WRONG?" Well, John Patrick Shanley's play is a far more eloquent statement than my bumper-sticker. It is a pæan to uncertainty.

Doubt is set in 1964 in a working-class Catholic school in the Bronx. The school is run by the autocratic Sister Aloysius-the archetype of every nun who ever rapped your knuckles with a ruler. (Saint Aloysius is, of course, the patron saint of students.) The other principal roles are:

Father Flynn, a young charismatic priest who wants to open the church to modern ideas. Sr. Aloysius' becomes his nemesis.

Sister James, a young innocent teacher who is dedicated to her charges.

Mrs. Miller, the mother of young Donald, an eighth-grader who is the first black student ever to enroll at the school. Father Flynn has become Donald's mentor.

With very flimsy evidence Sister Aloysius convinces herself that Father Flynn has an "inappropriate" relationship with Donald and she is determined to bring the priest down.

Christine Brewer is brilliant as Sister Aloysius. The purity and ease of her highest notes are simply remarkable. And she gives the Sister a grim, granite determination. In Ms. Brewer's hands Sister Aloysius becomes a veritable Inspector Javert in her pursuit of the man she sees as a perpetrator.

Wes Mason is perfectly cast as Father Flynn. He's handsome and he brings a beautiful, expressive baritone voice to the role. Mason fills the priest with energy and a convincing sincerity. The very lowest notes of the role are just within his tessitura, but his higher range is clear and pure.

Elise Quagliata sings Sister James, and she captures our hearts. This innocent is caught in the conflict between her superiors, and Ms. Quagliata makes her moral torment heart-breaking.

Melody Wilson is splendid in the small but beautiful role of the boy's mother. She has a strong, rich voice and excellent diction. She makes this mother decisive and clear-headed in her adjudication of some terribly difficult priorities.

Young Darren Tucker makes a charming Donald.

In their opera Shanley and Cuomo have chosen to expand Doubt beyond the small cast of the play. There is a large chorus consisting of nuns, clergy, laity and fifteen beautiful school-children. This all works wonderfully and, in fact, it is in the choral scenes that some of the most fascinating music appears. There are a number of opportunities for mini-solos from members of the chorus-all of whom are excellent. Stage director Tim Ocel manages all of this skillfully on the small Union Avenue Stage. There is even a lovely scene with antiphonal choirs in the balconies of the nave.

Douglas Cuomo's music is rich and multi-textured and often exciting. It is beautiful, but it sometimes seems a little too busy. Many times a rather insignificant word is given a cadenza or other ornamental flourish that it doesn't quite deserve. And there is much-a bit too much-ominous rumbling to evoke menace. Timpani underscore the approaching steps of the dreaded Sister Aloysius or the palpitations of a young student's heart. It's not quite as obvious as a silent-movie score, but it is a bit heavy-handed. There are complex dissonances. There are lovely, eerie wispy traceries of harmonics among the strings. It very definitely keeps our attention. But there is not an overabundance of melody.

At first I found Mr. Shanley's lyrics more like stage dialogue than lyric. But in Sister Aloysius' first real aria ("When you're not sure") Shanley gives her a true lyric, with as lavish an assortment of vowels as if he were writing in Italian. There is a beautiful duet between Father Flynn and Sister James ("Nothing wrong with love").

It seems odd that the role of Sister Aloysius should be written for a soprano and that of Sister James for a mezzo-soprano. Sister James is an innocent, a delicate spirit, while Sister Aloysius bears more gravitas and certainly more menace. But I suppose when you can lure a singer of the stature of Christine Brewer by making your leading lady a soprano who would do otherwise?

Conductor and Artistic Director Scott Schoonover leads his large group of singers and musicians into a perfect performance of this most interesting new work.

The remarkably fine set is by Kyra Bishop. With arched windows, stained glass, small trees, and under the heavy dominance of a great cross, it serves gracefully for the several places it represents. Lighting by Jeff Behm is full of warmth and leafy shadows; it's lovely. Teresa Doggett costumes the show with careful attention to period and ecclesiastical detail.

You will think about this opera and the dramatic questions it raises long after you leave the theater. It's a compelling work.

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