A Doll's House: A New Opera

photo by Justin McCallum

Making Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House into an opera is an intriguing project. The play is melodramatic - Ibsen had a long way to go before he freed himself of that weakness - and the emotions and giant and varied, sometimes repressed, sometimes explosive.

You’ll recall that this scandalous play relates the story of how Nora sacrifices herself to save her husband, Torvald, through a minor crime, and is blackmailed by Krogstad. To make a long and convoluted plot short, Torvald finds out, and instead of himself taking blame for the crime, as the naive Nora expected, blows up in a fit of abusive recrimination. Fortunately, Nora’s BFF, Mrs. Linde, convinces Krogstad to forget the whole damn thing, and everything would be fine except that Nora’s going to have no more of this arrangement. She storms out, abandoning her children, famously slamming the door after her. Oh, and Dr. Rank is involved too, adding more to symbolism than to plot. 

This month The Corkscrew Theater Festival is producing a fine opera, A Doll’s House: A New Opera, off-off-Broadway in a small space on East 4th Street. The music and libretto are by Grace Oberhofer and the production is meticulously directed by Allison Benko. We find a pale, bare stage with a single bench center (I suspect this is due to budgetary and space constraints, but, still, it’s the wise choice under the circumstances). The children are represented on the upstage screen as shadow puppets, as is an all-important important letter-box. 

The source material has been cut down to 90 minutes, and the libretto, for the most part, stays close to the source material. The Ibsen scholar will recognize lines about “borrowing and debt” and “How like your father, letting money slip away.”And it’s delicious to hear Torvald call Nora “my singing bird”! 

In fact, the singing is marvelous - Kristin Renee Young and Elijah Graham in the leads, Maria Lacey as Mrs. Linde, Amy Weintraub as Dr. Rank, Scott McCreary as Krogstad (a role George Bernard Shaw played in A Doll’s House in London). 

What’s more, Allison Benko has directed her cast to act as well as to sing. Elijah Graham deftly manages one of the most absurd transitions in the modern dramatic canon when Torvald turns from furious tyrant back to overgrown baby in a moment. Ms. Young can barely tolerate his embrace (“Torvald, you must let me go at once!”), her face registers every emotion, and she dances the tarantella, singing in vocalese, with the requisite desperation. Scott McCreary starts as scowling, swaggering villain, and transitions to smiling nice guy through - what else? - love. It’s no wonder that Mrs. Linde sings after he leaves “What a difference I’m making!” Indeed, the transitions of all the characters have been made clear. Only the world-weary Mrs. Linde seems unaffected by the events of this fateful Christmas.

Ms. Oberhofer has included a wordless dancer in the pivotal scenes. She presumably represents Nora’s inner life, but occasionally Nora or Torvald acknowledge her presence. What does this mean?

The orchestra consists of viola, flute (nice choice), cello and piano. The contemporary music, although I didn’t find it extraordinary, responds to the changing senses of the libretto. It takes on the required silliness when Nora plays the child, and it thunders when Torvald reproaches her with “Do you know what you have done?” The lines are almost always short, with a few short arias, duets and trios and the occasional line a cappella. And the music nearly attacks us when Torvald barks “Look straight” (a line direct from the source material).

The coup de théâtre occurs near the end, when the disillusioned Nora says “Torvald, you and I have much to say to one another.” Before the line, the house lights go up, the music goes silent - and then Nora speaks the line. Brilliant! It was on this line, after all, that modern drama was born, on December 21, 1879, in Copenhagen, at the play’s premiere.

The problem is that Ms. Oberhofer has written the role of Dr. Rank for a woman. For a moment we think the doctor in those pants is a lesbian (the character confesses love for Nora), but the character is referred to in the masculine pronoun. Part of the point of the play is that Nora and Mrs. Linde live in a male-dominated culture, and whatever point Ms. Oberhofer is making, it’s clear only to her.

When Nora walks out at the end of the show, she walks through the audience and bangs the door to the theater. Great idea. She’s followed by the nanny, Mrs. Linde and that inexplicable Dr. Rank.

I’m not sure that Ms. Oberhofer’s music has mined the source play for all it’s worth, and her libretto hasn’t overcome the weaknesses of the Ibsen’s script. We’d need to be familiar with the source material to understand why Nora is doing that famous tarantella (she’s stalling to give Mrs. Linde time to convince Krogstad to relent).

But whatever its shortcomings, A Doll’s House: A New Opera is a success, and we applaud the entire company.

Steve Capra

July 2019

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