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Witch Way Out: In 'The Crucible,' Opera San José looks at a historical witch hunt with modern ramifications.

Witch Hunt

Opera San José's production of 'The Crucible' proves relevant in new era of Patriot Act hysteria

By Scott MacClelland

DURING THE Labor Day weekend, the Coast Guard inspected 28 boats in Monterey and Moss Landing without prior notice. As reported last Wednesday in the Monterey Herald, the front-page article cited an email received from one Lowell Jones of Moss Landing saying the Coast Guard conducted a "blanket boarding" at the harbor, "searching boats and invading people's privacy at 10:30pm. They justified this intrusion by citing the Patriot Act."

It appears the ominous impacts on civil liberties authorized under the Patriot Act have come home to roost. In case anyone still doubts that fact, a trip to Opera San José's new production of The Crucible is in order. Whatever their virtues, even in times of terrorist threats, so-called "patriot" acts inevitably open the door to witch hunts. The witch-hunting actions of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, under the authority of the Internal Security Act of 1950 and the House Un-American Activities Committee, whipped up a firestorm of unfounded hysteria— "McCarthyism"—in America, with destructive results to individuals as well as to institutions.

It is no coincidence that Opera San José has mounted Robert Ward's The Crucible at this time, any more than it was a coincidence that Arthur Miller's play on which the opera is based opened in New York in 1953, the year after the second wave of McCarthy's HUAC hearings subpoenaed prominent figures in the arts and in entertainment demanding "the naming of names."

The play—like the opera—puts truth on trial in the context of the notorious witch hunts of late-17th-century Salem, Mass. The opera, which premiered in 1961, sets a dramatic tone from the first moment, bursting from the orchestra and the stage with equally intense force and confrontation. Ward's masterful score gives the entire work an undercurrent of anxiety and suspense, skillfully coloring the characters' motives, both overt and concealed. But unlike the hummable masterpieces of Italian and French opera, Ward's The Crucible is also gripping theater. As such, the voices in this production (heard last Sunday) were as different from one another as those of stage actors, a non–bel canto range of sounds that only intensified the drama.

In her OSJ debut, soprano Laura Twelves cut a chilling character as Abigail Williams and displayed a lot of vocal promise, not least a dramatic spinto at crucial moments. Joseph Wright took charge as John Proctor, replete with his familiar stage dignity and compelling baritone. Likewise Deborah Berioli, as the hapless and utterly sympathetic Elizabeth Proctor. As the Rev. John Hale, Kirk Eichelberger's basso seemed more powerful and commanding than ever, yet demurring to the softer-spoken but rigid authority of Jonathan Hodel's Judge Danforth. Other standout portrayals were those of Bill Welch (Rev. Samuel Parris), Judith Skinner (the slave Tituba), Gregory Fair (Thomas Putnam), Solmaaz Sarrafzadeh (Rebecca Nurse), J. Raymond Meyers (Giles Corey) and Jillian Boye (Mary Warren). In the pit, Anthony Quartuccio kept a sure hand on the vivid orchestra and the complex action as stage-directed by Timothy Near of San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Abigail's troop of hysterical girls and the Salem townsfolk packed the stage in the trial scene. Set design by Kent Dorsey sought strong shapes and bold colors but fit uncomfortably in the space, an overbearing parapet wall on the left made strangely surreal by a "forest" of transparent plastic bamboo opposite.

The Crucible, an Opera San José production, is double cast and plays Sept. 15, 17 and 23 at 8pm and Sept. 18 and 25 at 3pm at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $65–$85. (408.437.4450)

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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