Story: Following the death of a Mosher family infant in 1841, eldest child Emmeline is taken from the family home of her parents in Maine by her Aunt Hannah. Her mother’s stern, religious sister believes that it’s time for Emmeline to contribute to her impoverished family’s income and travels with her to Lowell, Massachusetts, where Emmeline is hired to work in a textile mill.
Not yet 14 years old, Emmeline faithfully sends her paychecks back to her family while she lives in a boarding house run by the prim and proper Mrs. Bass. At the factory, the owner’s son-in-law, Mr. Maguire, takes more than an employer’s interest in the quiet but attractive young woman.
When Emmeline becomes pregnant, she is “ruined” in the eyes of the factory boss and others, and cared for by Aunt Hannah until she delivers her child. The baby is immediately taken away to foster parents who promise to adopt it and raise it as their own.
Twenty years pass, and Emmeline now runs her family’s boarding house in Maine. Still single and attractive, she is pursued by a number of suitors but is content to live her life quietly, even as her sisters and brothers start their own families. One day a handsome young man, a railroad worker from Kansas named Matthew Gurney, arrives and quickly develops a rapport with Emmeline. He soon proposes marriage to Emmeline, who happily accepts. But is this marriage meant to last?
Highlights: Commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 1996, Tobias Picker’s brooding, two-act opera is receiving its first full-scale production since its debut in a brilliant presentation impeccably directed by James Robinson at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Both musically and theatrically, Emmeline is a bravura performance that resonates with its beauty.
Other Info: Blending in bits of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and other American composers, Picker’s lilting and affecting score is sprinkled with infectious melodies and folk tunes that evoke pictures of the harsh realities of life in America in the 19th century. That’s exemplified when Matthew plays familiar tunes of the day in the boarding house living room on his harmonica.
Robinson’s staging is exquisite in such scenes as the repetitive work done by factory girls in the textile mill or especially in the alluring courting scenes between Emmeline and Matthew in her family’s boarding house. The beautifully paced work takes place on Allen Moyer’s judiciously appointed set, which is spare and simple but a model of efficiency as it conjures the overwhelming sense of a time and place where survival trumps happiness.
It also is accentuated by powerfully persuasive lighting designed exquisitely by Christopher Akerlind, one rich in muted tones and bringing to mind a sense of constant loneliness and solitude that Emmeline accepts until the arrival of the handsome young rail worker.
James Schuette’s repressive costumes suitably confine the characters to their largely unsmiling fates, with the exception of Matthew’s togs that seem to underscore his buoyant optimism. Wig and makeup designer Tom Watson does yeoman work, especially in the ghostly white, cadaverous appearance of Emmeline’s mother in the second act.
J.D. McClatchy’s libretto, based on a novel by Judith Rossner and a true story from 19th century rural New England, is as lean and muscular as Picker’s tight score, with nary a word wasted in the two acts that traverse two and a half absorbing hours in their telling.
Conductor George Manahan extracts a richly nuanced performance by members of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra that includes delicate handling of some difficult-sounding notes throughout. Sean Curran adds some flavorful if modest choreography, especially in the wedding dances.
Joyce El-Khoury makes an impressive OTSL main stage debut, not only with her strikingly strong soprano but equally so with her fine rendering of Emmeline’s modest but forthright personality. Watching her move her feet aimlessly while her mind wanders during a lecture by factory boss Hooker (Geoffrey Agpolo in a fine performance) is enchanting as well as effective.
Tenor John Irvin puts his dashing good looks to good use as the amiable Matthew and brings luster to Matthew’s heartfelt arias. Another strong voice is that of Matthew Lau, whose resonant bass intones both the authority and love of Emmeline’s father for his eldest daughter.
Meredith Arwady, so powerful in last season’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, is equally compelling as Emmeline’s starched Aunt Hannah, a woman who holds the secret to unthinkable tragedy, using her smooth contralto to both praise and punish her niece.
Wayne Tigges capably handles the surprisingly complex role of the villain, Mr. Maguire, while Nicole Haslett is convincing as Emmeline’s friend Sophie. Felicia Moore satisfactorily portrays Emmeline’s muted mother.
Emmeline is another example of the uncanny ability of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to resurrect operatic gems that sparkled in their debuts, only to languish in a creative dresser drawer of forgotten artistic achievements later. OTSL’s rendition of Emmeline depicts tragedy in its purest and most heart-breaking form.
Company: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: June 19, 21, 25, 27
Tickets: $25-$129; contact 961-0644 or ExperienceOpera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard