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Union Avenue Opera, 2016

Sarah Bryan Miller – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When translating a work from one format to another — from book to movie, from play to opera — the most important concern is whether the new iteration adds something to our understanding of the piece. When it comes to the operatic version of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, composer Douglas J. Cuomo’s jazzy, sometimes unsettling score adds depth to the story and characters. Seen at Union Avenue Opera on Friday night, funny one moment and too close to the headlines the next, it’s one of the best things UAO has done.

Set at St. Nicholas, a Roman Catholic church and school in the Bronx in 1964, Doubt deals with the suspicions of the principal, Sister Aloysius, about the relationship between Father Flynn, a parish priest, and eighth-grader Donald Miller, the school’s first black student. The question is left to us to resolve.

Artistic director Scott Schoonover assembled a strong cast for UAO’s final production of the season. That started at the top with soprano Christine Brewer in the pivotal role of Sister Aloysius. Brewer, who created the role at Minnesota Opera, displayed commanding stage presence to go with one of the world’s great voices, as well as perfect delivery as a strong, pragmatic woman who is, when the opera begins, a stranger to doubt.

Sister Aloysius meets her match in Donald’s mother, an equally pragmatic woman who just wants to get her son through St. Nicholas and into high school. Their scene was indelible, thanks to the blazing chemistry between Brewer and mezzo-soprano Melody Wilson, in her UAO debut. Wilson has a rich voice and great acting chops, and she built a completely believable character.

UAO favorite Elise Quagliata brought her well-produced mezzo and formidable dramatic skills to the role of Sister James, whose happy innocence is battered into cynicism by opera’s end. Baritone Wes Mason was winning and sang beautifully as Father Flynn, a fine preacher and friend of the students.

Young Darren Tucker gave an affecting performance as Donald; all the children were engaged and engaging. There were fine individual performances in small roles from members of the chorus, particularly Philip Touchette as Monsignor Benedict and Grace Fisher as Mrs. Shields; as an ensemble, the chorus needed to work on blend and eliminate some sloppy spots at the opera’s beginning.

Kyra Bishop’s sets used dark wood and the shapes of church windows to create a mood; Teresa Doggett’s costumes were right for the era.

Director Tim Ocel is a theatrical treasure. Good direction helps to illuminate the story, and Ocel shone his light into the darker recesses of this one with uniform success.  He took advantage of the ecclesiastical setting, putting the chorus and sisters into the pews of the gallery for their final scenes. Schoonover led the musicians of the cast and orchestra with style, accuracy and élan.

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