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The Verdict On “Doubt,” The Opera — UPDATED

ows_135938788158566To followup on my recent Cultural Conversation with John Patrick Shanley: “Doubt” premiered at the Minneapolis Opera on Saturday night and the reviews are starting to come in. I’m not surprised that they are mostly positive. For one, who’s going to criticize Shanley’s writing, even if it’s a new form for him? The reviews I’ve read barely mention the new elements he had promised, and delivered on, let alone comment on whether they work well.

Mostly, the critics comment on the music and the singing.

Here’s the Minneapolis StarTribune review,

“…Cuomo’s music is of quiet power, most moving when most intimate; he knows how to insinuate what cannot be spoken. Though unmistakably American in sound, with echoes of Copland, Bernstein and John Adams, he avoids both pop cliché and music-theater razzmatazz. If Cuomo’s vocal lines sometimes seem awkward, his pacing is remarkably deft…Alive to Sister Aloysius’ steeliness, vulnerability and quirky humor, Christine Brewer [right, in the photo at left] makes her one of the most fully realized characters in contemporary opera. This is a great performance by a consummate singer; that it comes in the context of a new work makes it all the more extraordinary….”

20130124__130128ae-doubt1_400Here’s the St. Paul Pioneer Press review, which says in part:

“…Douglas Cuomo’s music serves to expand the emotional palette of Shanley’s words, layering levels of meaning onto exchanges and adding extra shadings to an already complex tale….It’s impressively sung and staged, its story’s ambiguity enhanced by Cuomo’s conflicted music. Yet the angular, often discomfiting character of that music might make it a tough listen for some….His melodies take many an unpredictable turn, single syllables sail in on a plethora of notes, and seemingly inconsequential phrases are repeated for evident emphasis, while others of relative importance are sung simultaneously and swept away in swells of sound…”

And here’s the AP review, published by Salon: “… The opera, with a libretto by Shanley and music by Douglas J. Cuomo, makes for a gripping 2 1/2 hours of theater. …The loudest applause deservedly went to Christine Brewer, the distinguished American soprano who may have found the role of a lifetime as Sister Aloysius…”

So the big winner seems to be Brewer. That’s Denyce Graves at right, playing the role of Mrs. Miller.

UPDATE, 1/30: The Wall Street Journal has weighed in; it, too, likes the singing and the “spare and clever set,” but doesn’t think the music rises to the libretto.


Photo Credits: Courtesy of the StarTribune (top) and the Pioneer Press (bottom) 



  1. Suzanne Husting says:

    As an audience member on opening night of this majestic and provocative new work, I have to agree that Douglas Cuomo’s score often was at odds with clarity of understanding, Sister Aloyisius’s first statement that in pursuit of wrongdoing one must step away from God being buried under an observation by Sister James. That and the tendency to extend through runs and melismas unimportant words, and to end what should be decisive phrases on an ascending note did not serve the libretto or the artists well in their characterizations. That being said, the power and increased focus brought to all the principal characters in this enlarged view of Shanley’s work is gripping, and enlightening. the use of an active and participatory chorus, both of adults and children, added to the boiling pot that is the situation in which Shanley sets his parable. The set provided a sense of the massive burden of obedience to the dictums of the Catholic faith and hierarchy, and the rapid changes to the set provided a welcome, quick flow to the production.
    Least well served by Cuomo’s score was the character of Sister Aloyisius, sung by Christing Brewer. Written at a sustained high level, similar to Princess Turandot, vocal fatigue is almost guaranteed. The high tessitura also does not well serve the character of the older nun. The writing for Sister James, in the mezzo range, was soothing in contrast but to this listener did not so well serve this younger, more innocent character.
    The portrayal of Father Flynn was engaging and complex, and his vocal writing was spot on, as was that for Mrs. Miller, portrayed by Denyce Graves, as the mother of the boy who may, or may not, have been subject to advances by the young priest. The scene in which Mrs. Miller appeared was riveting, almost entirely due to the sheer presence and vocal power of Denyce Graves.
    As a frequent opera goer, and a longtime devotee of the story that John Patrick Shanley has now presennted in a third form, I hope that we will see further change before this work is set in stone. But for all quibbles I have expressed, I found this to be an important new work that further expands and elucidates Shanley’s parable for audiences.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughts, Suzanne.

      “the tendency to extend through runs and melismas unimportant words, and to end what should be decisive phrases on an ascending note”

      For years, I’ve been bemused and frustrated by how often contemporary opera composers do this. (And by how rarely, it seems, that librettists, directors or opera company bosses step in and tell composers that it messes things up. And, come to think of it, how rarely critics mention the problem.)

      “The high tessitura also does not well serve the character of the older nun. The writing for Sister James, in the mezzo range, … did not so well serve this younger, more innocent character.”

      I haven’t seen or heard Doubt yet, but your observation rings very true – especially since, as a rule, mezzos tend to sound more matronly than sopranos. (As a rule, people – I’m well aware that there are plenty of exceptions.) But the age-old operatic convention that the female lead should be a soprano and the seconda donna should be a mezzo seems to have a powerful hold on people’s assumptions.

      Personally, I think it’s a no-brainer that Sister Aloysius should be a contralto. If Cuomo and Shanley should consider that option for a future revision, it would provide a meaty role for contraltos and low mezzos who get such roles all too rarely. (I recommend Felicity Palmer for the first cast – I bet you she’d do it – and Meredith Arwady for the second cast or the revival.)

      “I hope that we will see further change before this work is set in stone.”

      Fortunately, in his interview with Judy, Shanley said in so many words that there will be revisions.

  2. “Mostly, the critics comment on the music and the singing.”

    That’s what usually happens, I’m afraid, when classical music critics review opera.

    It would be wonderful if more theater critics covered opera more often. (It might also help some theater fans realize what good theater sometimes turns up on opera stages when all the elements come together.) Unfortunately, even before newspapers’ resources became so squeezed, they were rarely willing to give space to two different reviews of one event.


  1. […] can be provided from recent music preparation we did on Douglas J. Cuomo‘s opera, “Doubt,” which premiered earlier this year. The music for each act was spread over several Sibelius […]

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