Writing an opera is an ambitious and even daring project. Even more ambitious is the task of converting a lengthy novel into an opera: especially, an intricate one like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the subtle examination of English provincial society published during 1871–72.

Sara Duchovnay (Dorothea) and Philip Skinner (Edward Casaubon) © Jasmin Van T.
Sara Duchovnay (Dorothea) and Philip Skinner (Edward Casaubon)
© Jasmin Van T.

What has happened in librettist Claudia Stevens and composer Allen Shearer’s Middlemarch in Spring, which premiered this past weekend at Z Space in San Francisco, is a shift between complexities. Stevens has carved away at Eliot’s specific social insights, leaving behind the core of the novel in the story of Dorothea Brooke. Dodo, as her family calls her, is a serious and idealistic young woman. And as Eliot points out at the beginning of the book, she’s a young woman whose spirit is larger than her possibilities, who desires to make the world better and misunderstands the acquisition of knowledge as a form of wisdom. She marries the wrong man, but the pain that causes her brings her into clear understandings of herself. Her idealism ultimately transforms her into an ideal.

In some ways the story fits into the struggle of feminism within American culture, which is Stevens’ perspective, but not, I think, her intended message. Dorothea’s struggle is not about a failure of imagination, though, or about the reconfiguring of a paradigm. It is about the rigidity of a class structure that makes alternatives nearly impossible. It is here that the opera deviates radically from the original, and that is perhaps a good thing.

After having spent some four years working within the British system, which continues to observe late Victorian niceties especially within its privileged class, I can say with some confidence that Americans don’t understand the British. If we had even an inkling of the implications of their social system, especially in regard to ourselves as outsiders, then we would find costume dramas like Downton Abbey intolerable. Instead we continue on in a mysterious and sentimental reverence for what was often a cruel and deeply repressive system.

What I wanted to say, before my lapse into a cultural rant, is that the complexity that exists within the novel finds itself in Stevens and Shearer’s opera lodged in the merger between the American character of the creative team and its cast and the British character of the novel. As my ex-pat British friend who accompanied me to the performance pointed out: it would be very different to have a British cast perform Middlemarch in Spring. They would not have conveyed the same sense of agency. Even their bodily movements and style of singing would have changed our perception of the events described in the opera. I personally found this complexity fascinating and at times moving.

I seem to continue straying from Stevens and Shearer’s opera. Finally, I have to say that Middlemarch in Spring is charming, engaging, and romantic, despite its deviation from Eliot’s novel. I found the music especially wonderful.

Written for a chamber group of 11 musicians and performed by the Bay Area’s best – formidably talented musicians – under the stellar conducting of Jonathan Khuner, Shearer’s music is lush, elegant and witty. There is a playful irony that asserts itself in moments, in the flute’s flourishes during the Rev Casaubon’s pompous dictations, for example. And most lingering and enjoyably in the political campaign of Dorothea’s uncle, when the band took on the role of a jeering mob, in between playing its own raucous campaign song. They replaced the hearty British “hear, hear” with “right on!” And Tod Brody, the flutist, had the enviable commission of throwing stuffed fabric vegetables and fruit at Arthur Brooke. When I complimented Tod on his throwing arm after the performance, he modestly said he’d been waiting all his life to do that.

The singers were wonderful as well. With soprano Sara Duchovnay presenting a pure voiced Dorothea. Tenor Daniel Curran sang the role of Will Ladislaw beautifully. And Eugene Brancoveanu, who sang Sir James Chettam, is always a joy to hear, with his richly colored baritone. Tonia D’Amelio sang Dorothea’s sister Celia with ebullient flirtatiousness. And Philip Skinner gave Rev Casaubon a presence and depth that the original character lacked. Tenor Michael Mendelsohn created an amusing interpretation of Dorothea’s somewhat foolish but good-natured uncle.

Videos projected onto the metal latticework that comprised the sets by Mathew Antaky added an interesting spin to the psychological underpinnings of the story. The projections by Jeremy Knight used imagery from William Blake and Goya. Although Goya was a Spanish court painter, his graphics often used imagery, especially in the Desastres de la Guerra, which was grotesque and dreamlike. A true eccentric who talked to angels, Blake also struggled with the cruelties of the British class system, outlining his own form of utopia in his extensive writing and effusively colored prints. Using the imagery of the two artists to represent Dorothea’s inner emotional turmoil was an intriguing choice.