Composer: Louis Larchin
Libretto: Diane Osen
Conductor: Sara Jobin
Director Kristine McIntyre
Jane Eyre: Jennifer Zetlan
Edward Rochester: Ryan MacPherson
Mrs. Fairfax: Kimberly Giordano
Roderick Ingram/St Jon Rivers: Thomas Meglioranza
Mrs. Ingram/Diana Rivers: Jessica Thompson
Miss Blanche Ingram: Katrina Thurman
Mr. Richard Mason: Adam Cannedy
Bessie/Mary Rivers: Jessica Best
Mr. Wood: David Salsbery Fry
Mr. Briggs: Adam Cannedy
A sweeping romantic story with intense emotions, unexpected plot twists and ground-breaking social themes, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of those classics of literature that has always seemed ripe for all kinds of adaptation. Cinema and TV have had their share of more or less successful attempts, but curiously enough the opera world had left it alone, until recently that is, when American composer Louis Larchin boldly took the plunge, which eventually resulted in the world premiere of Jane Eyre (the opera) at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College courtesy of The Center for Contemporary Opera last Thursday, with a repeat performance on Saturday.
Since on Thursday night I had already committed to the New York Philharmonic, I did not have much of a choice. Despite the fact that I’d rather not go out on Saturday night, the venue was on the other (therefore, wrong) side of The Park, and the weather was hopelessly wet and cold, I was just too curious to let that one pass me by, not to mention that the presence of Jennifer Zetlan in the title could easily make up for many minor aggravations.
There is little doubt that the challenge-ridden relationship between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester has been one of the most popular aspects of the novel so it only makes sense that the opera focuses on it while still introducing some topics such as social classes, religion and feminism. All of this is still a lot to develop to an engaging degree and integrate into a harmonious whole; therefore, if some portions of the book, such as Jane’s miserable childhood, have been left out, except for one recapitulative aria, so be it. The cuts are overall appropriate, and while at roughly three hours, including two intermissions, the opera is by no means short, it is of manageable length.
After witnessing American soprano Jennifer Zetlan beautifully carry Kaija Saariaho’s reworked medieval song “Lohn” with the NY Phil the week before, I was thrilled to have a chance to watch her tackle a big romantic role in a more traditional opera setting on Saturday night. A young singer blessed with a gorgeous voice, a charismatic presence, and some sharp acting skills too, she embodied Jane Eyre with a lot of grace and strength. She did not shy away from the big emotional scenes, and she certainly belted out those big arias with force and conviction, but she also made sure never to fall into cheap sentimentality, reminding us that Jane Eyre is first and foremost the tale of a highly moral young woman standing up for herself in a world that was not used to girl power.
As Edward Rochester, the quintessential Byronic master of the house, tenor Ryan MacPherson was as dashing as they come, first mysteriously aloof before becoming more alive, demonstrating infectious joy and touching vulnerability, as he was falling in love with Jane. His powerful, flexible voice effortlessly expressed the wide range of emotions felt by an ultimately sensitive man desperately torn between passion and duty, and his genuine chemistry with Jennifer Zetlan made the intensity of their relationship all the more believable.
The rest of the large cast was totally committed to bringing the story to life as well, and it was a real pleasure to hear all those highly competent singers whole-heartedly dig into their respective parts, some of them even gamely fulfilling two roles in the course of the performance.
The sets and direction were generally conventional, which in this case turned out to be not only the safe but also the appropriate thing to do. Some overhead projections of videos, which seem de rigueur in a lot of productions these days, were in fact well incorporated and for the most part justified as they added insightful information. The costumes reinforced the traditional aspect of the staging, as did the furniture and props, except maybe for the numerous chairs hanging upside-down from the ceiling, letting you know that everything was not all right up there.
If the sets were predictable, the music definitely erred on the wild side with a resolutely modern score that served the action surprisingly well, with alarming dissonances to describe inner turmoil, delicate lines to underscore reflective moments, and show-stopping arias to emphasize dramatic peaks while displaying the singers’ impressive singing abilities. The orchestra performed with plenty of vigor and a laudable attention to details under the direction of Sara Jobin, and significantly contributing in making this Jane Eyre a successful endeavor.