The names and images come rushing back from high school English class. John Proctor, the sturdy New England yeoman who stands up against mass hysteria, though his moral standing is compromised by the adulterous affair he had with a servant, Abigail Williams. Rev. John Hale, known for matching wits with the devil. All those puritan women dressed in black and addressed as "Goody.''
The Crucible is back, but this time the Salem witch trials of the 17th century take place in an opera by Robert Ward, with a libretto by Bernard Stambler, based on the Arthur Miller play. Premiered in 1961, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music, Ward's opera was popular for several decades, but it has not been performed much lately. Now Sarasota Opera has revived the work in an excellent, often stirring production to launch its American Classics Series.
Sean Anderson looks as if he was born to play John Proctor: tall and handsome, cutting a heroic figure in his broad-brimmed planter's hat. In his big, expressive baritone he gives a riveting performance as Proctor struggles over his decision to call Abigail's accusations of witchcraft a fraud, fearing that if he does, she'll reveal their affair.
"Proctor or lecher — the name will be the same,'' Proctor pleads to his wife, Elizabeth, played by Heather Johnson, whose mezzo-soprano is a model of conversational clarity. That's no small thing in an opera sung in English, which can be surprisingly hard to make out. The surtitles projected above the stage come in handy.
Ward, a spry 93, attended last Saturday's opening-night performance. His music is in the tradition of mid 20th century American composers like Howard Hanson and Aaron Copland, with an urgent, intrinsically dramatic quality to the sound of the orchestra, conducted by David Neely. The writing for voices has ease and flexibility.
There is more than a touch of musical theater to The Crucible, notably in a brilliant Act 1 scene that begins with the Rev. Samuel Parris (Steven Uliana) leading a group in the singing of a psalm, "Jesus, my consolation,'' flowing into showcases for the slave Tituba (the marvelous Nicole Mitchell), the Rev. John Hale (Jeffrey Tucker in a rich interpretation ) and Abigail (Lindsay Barche), before winding back to where it all started with the psalm. Porgy and Bess was clearly an influence.
The opera follows the Miller text pretty closely, but the music lends a softening effect to the story. For example, the frenzied hysterics of Abigail and other girls in court don't seem as harrowing as they do in other versions of the story, such as the 1996 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor. The Salem witch trials as a parable for McCarthyism is less potent in the opera than in the play. Michael Unger directed the large cast, which includes more than a dozen substantial roles. Michael Schweikardt designed the atmospheric rough-plank set.
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Sarasota Opera this week announced its 2011-12 season: Puccini's Madama Butterfly (Oct. 28-Nov. 15); Bizet's Carmen (Feb. 11-March 24); Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (Feb. 18-March 23); Verdi's Otello (March 3-25); Barber's Vanessa (March 10-24).
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.