Little Women — Critical Acclaim
Some sort of masterpiece… Mr. Adamo’s libretto, built in rhymed couplets of seemingly effortless naturalness, proceeds with amazing sureness for a first opera. We come to love the complexity of Jo’s character but can still be appalled by her selfish cruelty. Her sisters are all limned surely, as are the three men who come as agents of inevitable change. Mr. Adamo’s music mixes modernism (actual 12-tone rows) with tonal lyricism, the former usually to advance the action or for humor, the latter for the big effusions. And yet the two styles blend effectively, the modernism not rigorously alienating and the lyricism genuine and heartfelt. All the big moments in the opera work: Jo’s arias, those for her sisters and for the older German teacher (who eventually, maybe, melts Jo’s heart) and his recitation of Goethe in both German and English… If you have any interest in new opera, or just want to enjoy yourself, you should make every effort to go.
—John Rockwell, The New York Times
(New York City Opera, March 2003)
Bodes fair to overtake other novelties launched with far greater fanfare—indeed, to take its place as a bona fide American classic. Pruning and shaping events with a thoughtful hand, Adamo has given Alcott’s material a coherence the novel does not possess. And while Jo is unquestionably his heroine, each sister and other supporting character likewise has a chance to shine. The score mixes musical idioms freely: a pinch of popular song here, a dash of serialism there, plenty of tuneful neoromanticism everywhere, and a lush setting of Goethe’s “Kennst du das Land” for Bhaer (sung first auf deutsch, then in translation). It seems as if the juxtapositions ought to be jarring, but they never are… in this production, the pace of the action occasionally seemed a shade too leisurely, but not so much so as to leave a listener in doubt of the score’s inherent quality. We will be hearing it again.
—Matthew Gurewitsch, L’Opera Internationale, Paris (NYCO)
An extraordinary record…Little Women has much memorable music: Laurie’s and later Amy’s soaring expressions of love; Jo’s “Perfect as we are,” shuttling between warm cantilena and spiky recitation of one of her lurid tales; Meg’s “Things change, Jo,” with phrases of contrasting length and pianissimo held notes; the letter ensemble, with eight characters tossing back and forth the “write soon” refrain; Bhaer’s long-lined, romantic Goethe reading; Beth’s death scene, with undulating strings and changing harmonies; Jo and the sisters’ poignantly harmonized last aria and quartet. Above all, Little Women is well crafted and superbly balanced. Adamo’s lyrical, tonal “character music” gets more time than does his crisp, twelve-tone “narrative music,” but neither feels dominant; changing from one to the other often has a striking dramatic effect but sometimes feels nearly seamless. The balance of sentiment and irony is close to ideal.
—Mark Mandel, Opera News, February 2011 (Naxos DVD)
Intelligent and sophisticated…, Little Women made gentle waves at Lincoln Center. Mark Adamo’s score is an intelligent blend of progressive techniques and conventional manners: his libretto, equally sophisticated, probes the psychology of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. One admired the subtle interplay of dissimilar tones and characters, not to mention the accumulation of disparate tensions. In this incarnation, Little Women appeals with soft-spoken conviction to head as well as heart.
—Martin Bernheimer, The Financial Times, London (NYCO)
Vivacious music-theatre of charm, wit and humour….Adamo brings considerable verve and freshness to Alcott’s story, with the result that this opera is never less than endearing: and his score leaves little doubt that he is a resourceful composer. Adamo’s musical ideas are coherent at every turn: his quartet writing for the sisters is ethereal and totally charming, and solos from Jo, Meg and Friedrich Bhaer possess wonderful, genuine emotional amplitude…Little Women is magically transporting.
—Graham Strahle, The Australian
(State Opera of South Australia, Australian premiere, May 2007)
Humor and feeling work on top of a perfect structure…Alcott’s universally popular novel has been repeatedly adapted for the screen, the stage and other musical adaptations, but never with the theatrical acumen of Adamo. The music uses twelve-tone techniques for the narrative passages and the recitatives, even for some comic moments, but when a moment of lyricism arrives the composer is never shy of his melodic gifts in passages of true lyrical beauty: the impeccable orchestration achieves a varied instrumental palette with very few instruments and the handling of the musical themes (leitmotif), as well as the idiomatic vocal lines are unmistakably Adamo’s very own virtues… Destined to be a classic of American opera.
—Benjamin Echenique Juarez, La Reforma, Mexico City (New York City Opera)
A compelling opera in a fascinating performance…This music is modern, yet not difficult to absorb. Though this is a modern opera, it deals with classic themes, tracking the way each character deals with the challenge of adult intimacy: these are women who are not so little anymore… The capacity audience, which may have had a bit of trepidation about ‘modern music’, ended up thoroughly enjoying this fascinating contemporary performance.”
—Ona Binur, Maa’riv, Tel Aviv (Israeli première, July 2008)
—A masterly and often poetic distillation: Jo and her sisters are touchingly drawn, often with humor, and Mr. Adamo’s sense of timing is nearly perfect. The score is invitingly lyrical, but not unsophisticated: many of its themes and recurring motifs are derived from 12-tone rows. Good tunes propel the arias and ensembles, with skillful orchestration supporting them. [Little Women] does everything an opera should do. Not least, it leaves an audience moved.
—Allan Kozinn, The New York Times (Glimmerglass Opera, July 2002)
A beautifully crafted work: shows remarkable confidence, [and] does a brilliant job of molding Alcott’s tale into operatic form. Adamo does not seem like a musical tourist in a literary place; he lives here. He treats Little Women as a story of adult addiction to nostalgia and regret; the heroine, Jo, can’t surrender either the fact of her childhood or its idyllic aura. Adamo is a spirited, fast-witted composer: like Britten, he can turn on a stylistic dime, running the gamut from open-throated Broadway song to serpentine twelve-tonish writing, mak[ing] fascinating music from the simplest possible material….I suspect that in five or ten years’ time Mark Adamo will be greeted with ovations on the stage of the Met.
—Alex Ross, The New Yorker (Glimmerglass Opera, July 2002)
Engaging… Little Women has shown itself to be a work with healthy bones. Serving its every layer—story, psychological study and artistic commentary—was the music: and that scoring, now revealing flavors of Aaron Copland at his most tuneful, now Arnold Schoenberg at his most pungent, was thoroughly brilliant…Little Women has enduring strength.
—Daniel Ginsberg, The Washington Post (Summer Opera Theatre, June 2007)
A gifted composer… in Little Women, (not previously seen in Atlanta,) every major character has her own distinct sound universe, and the recitatives are underlined by a spiky modernist sound of considerable originality. Perhaps no other recent opera has so many memorable arias and ensembles, the kind you can hum the next day….An immensely popular opera with a sophisticated score.
—James L. Paulk, The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution (October 2007)
A striking debut —a crackling adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic that both distills the tale’s most powerful elements into a two-act drama of cinematic fluency and gives it the sweetly mythic dignity of an old family album. Big arias —or half-arias —soar suddenly out of skittering dissonances; effusions of giddiness, yearning, impatience and pathos jostle pell-mell with one another. And somehow, because of what is manifestly Mr. Adamo’s deep-felt enthusiasm for the book, this kaleidoscopic approach feels just right…(Jo) is as complex a character as I have seen in a contemporary opera, and although Mr. Adamo has given sharply sketched dimensions to her parents, sisters and suitors, she dominates the piece as completely as does the title character of Tosca. The recurrence of her eerily adamant aria, “Perfect as we are,” is the opera’s most telling motif. Yet it’s a testament to Mr. Adamo’s dramatic instincts that the single most resonant moment in the piece is given not to Jo but to her German suitor, Friedrich Bhaer, when he widens her horizons by singing a Goethe poem (“Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom”). It is set to an arching, angular melody that Brahms might have written if he’d ever visited New England…Charm is not a word that can be often applied to opera, but it’s a quality that Mark Adamo’s Little Women has in abundance.
—Charles Michener, The New York Observer (Glimmerglass Opera, July 2002)
A major miracle of success: [and] the PBS telecast amply reveals why the opera has taken flight…an assured sense of structure, and genuine arias supported by wonderfully deft instrumentation: haunting and dramatically conclusive…Mr. Adamo declares that “art is entertainment: done so well, so truthfully, with such precise execution, such generosity of intent that we want to return to it over and over again.” To judge by Little Women, he has achieved that goal.
—Barrymore Laurence Scherer, The Wall Street Journal (PBS telecast, August 2001)
Beautifully wrought, tightly executed and consistently entertaining, the local premiere of Mark Adamo’s 1998 operatic setting of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, seen at the first performance Saturday night in the Irvine Barclay Theatre, is a joy in every way. A strong, poetic text, clearly delivered, married to music of charm and tunefulness, tells the story of the four sisters compellingly and with bracing economy. From the start, each character is drawn in detail, but without overstatement. Alcott’s characteristic sanguinity is the motor that drives this plot, and it never fails; Adamo draws upon its power and intelligence throughout.
—Daniel Cariaga, Los Angeles Times (Opera Pacific, May 2001)
I urge you to see it, to assure yourself that beautifully proportioned small-scale American opera can still work if serious intelligences are involved. Adamo did his own libretto, and set it to vital, shapely music that, for once in the troubled annals of new opera, doesn’t sound cribbed from half a dozen soundtracks. Not having made my way through Louisa May Alcott’s enduring novel at any time in recent decades, I still get from this lithe and enormously attractive stage work a sense of closeness to the interlock of personalities that I missed in, for example, in the recent Winona Ryder film. Adamo writes arias, lots of them, and they really identify the people singing them. Better yet, he writes ensemble pieces with real operatic counterpoint… For a first opera, by a composer still in his 30s, I would reckon Little Women a happy, even astonishing success.
—Alan Rich, L.A. Weekly, (Opera Pacific, May 2001)
The “Cinderella” of recent American operas…networks of motives knit the opera together, and the score, like the characters, accumulates memories as it goes along, and ponders them. Adamo has a real sense of the theater, of dramatic effect, and of stage time. There’s no question that Little Women connects to its audience, and what makes the connection is Adamo’s identification with the feelings of his characters, especially Jo. It is an opera that hits the bull’s-eye of its own ambitions… A grand success.
—Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe (PBS telecast, August 2001)
An artistic and commercial success, due to Adamo’s sense of the lyric theatre —his sharply focussed libretto that clarifies both storyline and the narrative’s music —and his accessible yet sophisticated music. Little Women is about change and letting go of the past, and Adamo’s music is equal to the challenge of his ambitious agenda. The eighteen-piece orchestra sounds bigger than it is, perhaps because it’s always active, moving the story along on its own or commenting on the characters and action…Ondine, a Finnish company, has done American music proud with this release. (Recording of the complete opera on Ondine, ODE988-2D, released August 28, 2001).
—Dan Davis, Amazon.com
An unqualified triumph… Adamo is clearly a man of the theatre, and Little Women was revealed as a stage work par excellence, by a precious master of the genre. The music is characterized by gloriously fluid vocal writing and—again a testimony to Adamo’s mastery as well as to the skill of the performers—virtually every word of is exceptionally well-crafted libretto was audible to the audience…Hotfoot it to the Playhouse, because this is a piece that needs to be seen.
—Roger Knight, State of the Arts (State Opera So. Australia, May 2007)
Stunning in its inventiveness, craft, and downright beauty…Adamo also penned the well-thought-out libretto, but it is his seamless music that gives the piece its power. He careens from high, searing melody (such as the repeated “perfect as we are” motif) to atonal, incisive bite as the drama dictates. This remarkable American opera deserves to be heard and here is a recording that does it proud. Adamo has composed a truly American piece, and it is, both musically and theatrically, an impressive (and maybe even important) contribution.
—Daniel Felsenfeld, andante.com (PBS telecast, August 2001)
A moving treatise on change, growth, and love…At a time when prosaic pundits proclaim the death of classical music, the August 29  PBS premiere of composer-librettist Mark Adamo’s 1998 opera Little Women has the potential to shame the little darlings into silence. Adamo’s writing is so good, and the production so strong, that Little Women is likely to earn a chance at the title of “greatest American opera.”
—Jason Serinus, Advocate.com (PBS telecast, August 2001)
A wonder of the American opera world…a tight, universal tale, [in which], as in the best operas, the stage drama is fused, irresistibly, with the music. The stage action is clear and fast-paced, the characters sharply etched, the unfolding story captivating. This is no postmodern, camp or ironic —and thus dismissive —view of the beloved girlhood classic novel. No, Adamo shows great sympathy for his characters (he fashioned his own libretto, respectful of Alcott) and sees the basic conflict of the story as Jo in a hopeless battle against time, fighting against her own maturity. The story is told in a few key episodes —Meg’s wedding, Jo’s move to intellectual New York, Beth’s death —and is thankfully thin on schmaltz…. The music is smoothly melodic, written lyrically for the voice, ingratiating on the listener’s ear. The two-hour opera is as fit for first-time readers of Little Women as for adults who’ve experienced its poignant themes firsthand.
—Pierre Ruhe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (PBS telecast, August 2001)
American composer Mark Adamo’s Alcott-based opera, Little Women, matches the literary accomplishment of its libretto with an equally impressive musical score, convincingly —sometimes arrestingly —shifting from pungent atonality to flowing lyricism. With musical motifs that stick in your head, characters that come to life both dramatically and musically, superbly managed orchestral resources, a story that millions already know and love, and a soul-searing philosophical theme derived from that familiar story, Little Women proved itself that enviable rarity —a new opera that appears likely and worthy to become a standard repertory piece.
—Wayne Lee Gay, Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Houston Grand Opera, premiere, March 1998)
Beautiful and inventive….Little Women is the first opera HGO has revived since the company began premiering works 26 years ago: the broader audience for it will find a vigorous yet seductive debut opera. Its first act is filled with kinetic energy; its second is relaxed and more moving because of several beautiful and ingenious arias and set pieces. Producers at other major opera companies should look carefully at presenting Little Women.
—Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle (HGO revival, March 2000)
A musically and emotionally satisfying work: its characters are sympathetically and crisply drawn, and Adamo’s score, which can soar exhilaratingly, is dotted with singer-showcasing arias, duets, and ensembles. The terms “new opera” and “encore!” don’t often go together: but Little Women bears repeating.
—William Albright, Opera News (HGO premiere, March 1998)
Liberates the quartet of adolescents, distilling from their lives a perspective relevant to today…. An eclectic idiom very much of his own making reflects Adamo’s love for fioratura vocal writing, pan-chromatic harmony, and American theatre song: and a dark undercurrent in his well-wrought score the perfection Jo sees in the protective cocoon of family is illusory… Superb.
—Wes Blomster, Opera Now (HGO revival, March 2000)
Poignant, and masterfully realized: as musically and dramatically exciting as anything in Verdi. Adamo’s writing for the voice is unmistakably modern, but it is so consistent and idiomatic that it falls most pleasingly on the ears after just a scene or two, and the singers obviously relish its bravura requirements… The cherished 1868 girls’ novel by Louisa May Alcott might seem an unlikely source to illuminate a young composer’s genius in the 21rst century. Nonetheless, this is unquestionably the case with Mark Adamo’s first opera.
—Mickey Coalwell, Kansas City Star (Civic Opera Theatre, February 2000)
A brilliant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel…as fine an opera as any American has written.”
—Paul Horsley, Kansas City Star (revival, February 2002)
An opera for our time, celebrating domestic harmony in a world of rapid change… Feisty Jo is willful, funny, passionate, and committed, and in this perceptive production her memories are presented fluently. There are many effective set pieces, the wedding sextet, the laundry folding scene, and most impressively, the death of Beth. Adamo writes lovingly for the female voice: Frederick Bhaer takes the honors, though, with Adamo’s luscious scoring of Goethe’s Kennst du das Land… Mark Adamo has found an emotional core for this charming and moving family tale.
—Ewart Shaw, The Advertiser (State Opera of South Australia, May 2007)
Maximum dramatic impact… The libretto, also written by Adamo, is cleverly crafted, balancing sentimental drama with icebreaking humor to match the score. And the score alone is worth coming to hear. Adamo’s music incorporates a variety of musical styles to emulate the mood of the characters and the scenarios. Hand in hand with the action onstage, the music is at times melodic and at other times completely dissonant and unpredictable…A brilliant American opera.
—Ashley Hassebroek, Omaha World-Herald (Opera Omaha, March 2002)
A fairly radical re-shaping of Alcott’s book. The characters are all there, and the setting remains that of New England during the Civil War: but Adamo, for whom this is a first opera, and a most auspicious one, trims most of the novel’s incidents, focusing instead on Jo and her refusal to let go of the past. “Perfect as we are” and its opposite, “things change,” are threads out of which the whole tapestry of the score is woven, building to what is almost a vocal symphony in the sextet that closes Act One and referred to again in the opulent quartet for the four sisters that closes the opera…New operatic works tend to be admired rather than loved, which has turned Little Women into something of a sensation in the opera world: well-structured as theater and carefully developed as music.
—Michael Anthony, Star-Tribune (Minnesota Opera, April 2002)
Already a repertory piece…ostensibly a story for young girls, it appeals on an adult level as well and has feminist overtones that ring true in modern times. Adamo writes accessible music that is at the same time substantial and illustrative of the dramatic situations…utterly engaging.
—Robert Croan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PBS telecast, August 2001)
The real star of the opera is Adamo: a rising talent to watch, who has created a score that flows seamlessly between astringent atonalities, elegant tonal orchestral writing, and unabashedly melodic lines worthy of a Broadway musical: it’s Sondheim, Schoenberg, Rodgers and Hammerstein all rolled, with impressive effectiveness, into one.
Jim Farber, The Daily Breeze (Opera Pacific, May 2001)
Goes straight to the heart, in more ways than one…There is, first of all, the story itself, told with an inviting blend of sentiment and high spirits. Adamo’s libretto mines Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel for its air of quivering nostalgia, and his fragrant, highly melodic score —lush but transparent, full of arching vocal phrases and deftly blended ensembles —makes each of the four March sisters a distinctive presence…Anyone with an interest in the fate of contemporary opera must be cheered by the speed and ease with which this two-act work has established itself in the repertoire.
—Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle (Cabrillo Music Festival, August 2002
A major promise on the opera scene...(Adamo) writes more striking and enjoyable phrases than just about anybody in opera today, (and) his libretto from the Louisa May Alcott novel is excellent. Much to his credit, Adamo doesn’t sound like anybody else…A masterpiece may yet emerge from where Little Women came from.
—Janos Gereben, San Francisco Classical Voice (Cabrillo Music Festival, August 2002)
An emotionally charged, highly psychological version of the classic…. Alcott’s inspiration is clear, and the piece itself —about the demands of family, resistance to change, and the need to live a creative life —finds a clear and powerful expression in the music, haunted as it is by lovely melodies.
—Marilyn Mason, Christian Science Monitor (Central City Opera, July 2001)
Beautifully crafted in an accessible (but sometimes surprisingly spiky) musical idiom. Best of all, it’s an opera that trusts the voice. Adamo has a knack for writing vocal lines that are beautiful, to the point, and generous to both singers and listeners —and that’s a special gift. And Adamo has given mezzo Stephanie Novacek a real star-making role in Jo, the sister determined to have a career as a writer while keeping her family close to her, even to the point of selfishness. The scenes of life in the March family are charming without being overly cute, and Jo’s struggle to accept the changes brought about by her sisters’ (and her own) sometimes difficult life choices is honestly and vividly portrayed. Certainly this is a must-see program for Alcott fans of all ages.
—T. J. Medrek, Boston Herald (PBS telecast, August 2001)
This is an original…Adamo’s decision to recast a sprawling novel into a succession of memories recollected by the story’s major character was ingenious. And he has managed in this, his first opera, to shape a score that meets thematic requirements —and not in copycat fashion. Tonal techniques are used in ways that reflect the dramatic substance of the story. And, where deemed useful, Adamo has inserted touches of the atonal. The fabric of chords and discords shapes into a unit… The unstoppable passage of years is a reality we all know. Adamo’s Little Women brings it into sharp focus. It’s good to have a fresh, contemporary work on the Musical Arts Center stage once again. Along with the old favorites, the IU Opera Theater should be championing a now-and-then newcomer to the repertoire. Little Women deserves its place on the schedule.
—Peter Jacobi, Indianapolis Herald Times (Indiana University-Bloomington Production, February 2002)
An onrushing success…The story, language, dress and manner are high Victorian with a New England accent; the music is modern in sound and dramatic timing, New Yorkish in its edgy energy… Alcott’s story is a children’s classic. Adamo’s Little Women is adult in tone and depth.
—Clarke Bustard, Times-Dispatch (Richmond) Ash Lawn-Highland Festival, August 2001
A considerable accomplishment…there is no doubt that this new opera deserves many more productions, and will be with us for quite a while. Local audiences would do well to take in this promising new work while it is still in its prime.
—John T. Roberts, The Daily Progress (Charlottesville) Ash Lawn-Highland Festival, August 2001
A triumph… a sophisticated libretto, and music that shifts effortlessly between avant-garde atonalism and Copland-esque exuberance…a major new American opera.
—Tim Hulsey, Metro-Herald (Charlottesville) Ash Lawn-Highland Festival, August 2001
Compact, clearly etched and deeply moving…an insightful libretto and an energetic score [tell] the story of a family grappling with the inevitability of change.
—Marc Shulgold, Rocky Mountain News (Denver)(Central City Opera, July 2001)
The Amahl of the twenty-first century….Adamo’s idiom is original and sophisticated: his scoring for chamber ensemble is wonderfully transparent and a clever psychological counterpoint to the action onstage…A contemporary classic.
—Wes Blomster, The Daily Camera (Denver) (Central City Opera, July 2001)
An opera that won’t quit: impressive, and meticulously crafted…. Adamo’s music is lyrical and lean, with a strong sense of forward motion, [yet] willing to luxuriate in a lovely passage, giving it room to bloom…. Playful dressing-up, quarrels, triumphs, weddings, rejections, daily work, Jo’s writing, Beth’s death —each gleamed forth momentarily like pebbles polished by a stream of memory, suddenly lit by a sun of affection.
—Craig Smith, The Santa Fe New Mexican (PBS telecast, August 2001)
An opera for everyone: a beautiful, moving and cohesive work. The libretto itself, well-crafted and full of meaningful internal references, is a marvel: the lyrics flow with an intimate, conversational quality, and the action moves at an easy pace. The music, full of harmonic and descriptive powers, works similar magic. The four sisters’ voices, for example, wander in and out of consonance and dissonance in intriguing ways: and there are countless moments of genuine lyricism…an inspired triumph.
—Zachary Lewis, Harrisburg Patriot-News (Pennsylvania)
Brilliant: an evening of masterful storytelling and stirring music-making, in a nearly faultless production at Glimmerglass Opera…Though at times Adamo’s characterizations depart from the novel, he makes good use of melody to draw characters and pull on emotions and his orchestra becomes a toybox of sounds when the children are at play…Adamo proves to be as masterful a playwright as he is a composer, for this is a work of vivid characters and ingenious musical narrative.
—Joseph Dalton, Times-Union (Albany) (Glimmerglass Opera, July 2002)
A thoughtful, sometimes comic, always moving opera… Little Women casts the adventures of the March sisters, some of the most beloved characters in American fiction, as a rather dark memory play. Adamo uses a complex and varied musical approach; At times, the music reflects sentimental Victorian themes while at others exploits innovative percussion effects to create an emotionally engaging frame work for the many notions of marriage and family that the opera explores.
—Tom Butler, News-Journal (Wilmington) (OperaDelaware, May 2008)
Endearing...Conductor, Timothy Sexton has approached the score with an acute awareness that it is much more than mere accompaniment for the voices. Although far from Wagnerian in proportion, Little Women, too, incorporates a range of thematic motifs that illuminate the action: and Bhaer’s scene with Jo, quoting Goethe in an attempt to win her, is spine tingling…An absolute gem of a chamber opera.
—Barry Lenny, Rip it Up (Australian premiere, May 2007, SOSA)