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April 28, 2012

Maryland Opera Studio makes shining case for Argento's 'Miss Havisham's Fire'

Dominick Argento, one of America's most distinguished composers, has been the focus of an extraordinary festival at the University of Maryland to honor his 85th birthday. He well deserves all the attention.

I finally got a chance to sample some of festival Friday night -- a production of "Miss Havisham's Fire," Argento's fascinating 1979 opera (subsequently revised) that looks behind the veil of the unforgettable jilted bride from Dickens' "Great Expectations." If you can get to the Clarice Smith Center for the final performance Sunday, by all means do.

I have reservations about ...

the structure of the piece and, especially, the long final scene, which drains the dramatic tension. But, overall, there is no question that this is a major work of substantial worth.

The score, with one foot comfortably in the past, another firmly planted in the 20th century, is rich in thematic ideas and imaginative orchestration. The vocal writing is assured and natural. And, let's face it, the subject matter is very cool.

Argento has so many deft touches in the opera. Among my favorites are the long, sustained note that accompanies the scene where Miss Havisham, all dressed and anxious for her wedding, receives the kiss-off letter from her fiance; and the ballroom scene in Act 2, which recalls "Eugene Onegin" in its ability to fuse dance and drama to compelling effect.

Maryland Opera Studio, under the direction of Leon Major, has long been one of the university's finest assets. The company shines very brightly in this venture.

Major's stage direction is fluid and arresting, aided by the visual atmosphere beautifully summoned by James Kronzer (scenic design), David O. Roberts (costumes) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting).

The cast animates the telling stage pictures with performances that ring true. The veteran soprano Linda Mabbs, as Miss Havisham, gives a triumphant lesson in the art of operatic singing and acting. Her voice retains much of the innate sweetness I recall from hearing her perform in the D.C. area during my early freelance days. Her phrasing is unfailingly eloquent and involving.

Alex DeSocio makes a most sympathetic Pip, and his singing has substance and warmth. Strong contributions, vocally and dramatically, come from Andrew Adelsberger (Coroner), Jarrod Lee (Jaggers), Deborah Thurlow (Nanny), Monica Soto-Gil (Sarah Pockett), Emily Kate Naydeck (Young Aurelia), Ilene Pabon (Estrella), and Patrick Cook (Drummle), among others. It is an admirably cohesive ensemble.

The chorus, too, impresses. And the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, eloquently conducted by Timothy Long, handles the opera's challenges with confidence and expressive shading.

Like I said, catch it if you can. No telling when there will be another chance to experience this haunting opera around here.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:28 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


I couldn't agree more! Although the performance I saw experienced it's share of technical glitches, it was wonderful to hear this rarely performed work. And it is a wonderful, haunting, opera; full of wonderful drama, emotional and psychological complexity, and some wonderful singing. Great stuff and as far away from the ABCs as one can get.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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