CD Review: Lori Laitman's Opera The Scarlet Letter
Opera Colorado Orchestra and Chorus, Ari Pelto, Conductor
Review by John Campbell

The subject of this opera is an essential part of American history. Based on Nathaniel Hawthorn's (1804-1864) novel, David Mason's beautiful verse adaptation portrays a love triangle set in the Puritan society of 17th century New England. Hester Prynne has a child out of wedlock and is shamed for adultery—thus the scarlet “A” over her breast. The intrigue of the situation is her unwillingness to reveal the father. Society, then as now, thrives on gossip but out of love for him she continues to shield the father, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is pastor of the local congregation. The other man, Roger Prynne, is Hester's long lost husband, living under a false identity as Roger Chillingworth.

I usually prefer having a live staged performance or a DVD for my first exposure to a new opera. With only a CD and a downloadable libretto available so far, I found together they created an intense experience for me. The powerfully expressive music was enthralling, from it's choral beginning to the shattering end. Lori Latiman's music is lyrically expressive, capturing the intricate psychology of three flawed people in an early American setting. The music is dense, complex and intense, using instrumental colors to illuminate penetrating psychological insights and vivid characters. Drawing on her wide experience of writing art songs, Ms. Laitman has crafted a rich opera of great depth. Out of her understanding of how to set the voice she has created a stunning opera for the 21st century.

Soprano Laura Claycomb's intensely passionate singing was just right. In The Scarlet Letter a rigid religiosity comes in contact with an untamed wilderness. As an outcast from the community, she develops a deep sense of her individuality, retaining her innocence and purity of spirit. Believing her husband was lost at sea, she is seduced into a loving relationship with Arthur Dimsdale. Hester's focus is on raising her daughter as a free spirit. Her strength of character reveals a true moral sense that contrasts sharply with the weakness of her husband and her lover, weakness that ultimately leads to their self-destruction.

In the second act Roger admits that ”We've done each other wrong...I plucked your budding youth away and wedded you to my decay.” He has became obsessed with finding out who her lover was. Malcom MacKenzie's (Chillingworth) baritone had a cunning warmth to convince Arthur Dimmesdale (Dominic Armstrong) of his friendship. Because he chooses to remain in his official role as minister, Dimmesdale's guilt destroyed his heart by suppressing his natural love for Hester and their child, Pearl. He confesses to the community on Election day, embraces his beautiful child and her mother, standing together as a family. His heart bursts and his death cheats Chillingworth of his revenge.

Other characters include Mistress Hibbons, a witch, unforgettably sung by mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak, tenor Kyle Knapp as the elder minister John Wilson, and Governor Billingham, baritone Daniel Belcher.

Lori Laitman has written over 250 art songs, a children's opera and an oratorio and her experience prepared her well to compose The Scarlet Letter. The singers are well chosen for their roles. I highly recommend this CD (NAXOS 8.669034-35, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble) and I hope that Tidewater Opera Initiative will consider a production soon.

For our reviews of many of Lori Laitman's other works, visit our Review Index page and scroll down to "CD and Book Reviews, Lori Laitman."

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