One can hardly imagine a more dramatic story than the one about the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and ’93. Something happened in this little sea coast town north of Boston, something that ended with twenty people legally tried and executed for communing with the devil.
Arthur Miller made use of the story in his play “The Crucible” in 1953, during the congressional investigations of Communist sympathizers, many of them employed in the entertainment businesses. In 1961, the opera version of the play, with music by Robert Ward and a libretto by Bernard Stambler, was first performed.
Recently, K-State Opera Theater gave locals a fine production of this theatrically effective opera. Because it appeared on the thrust stage of modest-sized Nichols Theater, the instrumental accompaniment was limited to the work of on-stage pianist Nathaniel Alan Hixson. But the well-turned out and well-rehearsed cast was large.
In fact, the opera calls for twenty-one singers. The majority of them get solo and dialog passages and more than a few get the floor for substantial speeches. Those of us lucky enough to get seats for the show heard good evidence of the depth of vocal talent available on campus.
There were no weak singers here. The women’s voices may have been a little ahead of the men’s, but not by much. The performances, thanks to Music Director Amy Rosine, were clear and strong and fluid. And Ward’s music is sufficiently conventional that ticketholders had little trouble enjoying the singing or making sense of the action.
The story begins in the Parris home, where daughter Betty has come down with something after dancing with some other girls, in the woods at night, to a tune sung by slave Tituba (Essence Nicholson). There is talk of witches having stirred up this nocturnal expression of animal spirits. But already the community is split between the mercantile party led by Thomas Putnam (DJ Davis) and the agricultural nay-sayers associated with John Proctor (baritone Drew Hansen).
Soon there are trials going on in town. The party of girls (led by Putnam’s former lover Abigail, sung by Danielle Cornacchio) acting out imaginary torments and accusing rightly-suspicious citizens. These folks are arrested and tried by Judge Danforth (Matt Patton). We are filled in on this as we visit Proctor’s farmhouse where he and his wife Elizabeth (Janie Brokenicky) and their servant Mary (Marguerite Fredericksen) are discussing the influence they have had or can have on legal events.
But every move the clear-headed make can be turned against them by the self-serving chorus of girls and the judge. Inevitably events musical and dramatic lead us to a self-sacrificial stand on a minor matter—the signing of a confession—at the play’s climax.
Helped along by Libby Uthoff’s lighting, Joe C. Klug’s dark and woody set, and Dana Pinkston’s Puritans-at-Thanksgiving costumes, the show had impact. Stage Director Jennifer Vellenga took one sizable risk in having action on a platform upstage treated as if it were actually happening in the central audience section—characters on the stage proper turned to the audience to speak with characters on the platform, which was actually behind them. But this device didn’t seem to cause any confusion.
Besides that tricky bit, the staging wasn’t any more risky than was the music. And the net effect was impressive. The large audience in the theater took a couple of hits from the story of “The Crucible,” and had some things both musical and ethical to consider on their way to Aggieville after the show.