Opera goers recognize that the libretti of Italian or German operas differ in syntax and meaning, sometimes quite strikingly, from their English translations. Neither Lucia’s descent into madness nor Tristan und Isolde’s love duet, for example, would have the emotional impacts they have if sung in the workmanlike English presented above the stage.
That is why the libretto to John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is so critical and proved so disappointing at the Minnesota Opera’s world premiere of his opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts Saturday evening. Not only did the opera not contain an aria, but its few extended passages accomplished little in revealing the characters’ motivations or emotions. Aside from Denyce Graves’ stellar turn as Mrs. Miller, the outcast choir boy’s beleaguered mother, most of the dialog consisted of terse staccato exchanges between the principal power figures characteristic of courtroom arguments but not of dramatic opera.
Christine Brewer as the knuckle-busting nun Sister Aloysius and Matthew Worth as the innovative Father Brendan Flynn sing for all they’re worth, but the plot reduces them to abstract embodiments of opposing church factions circa Vatican II, 1962-65. Themes like doubt and certainty are robbed of humanity because the main characters battle one another for doctrinal supremacy rather than betray their emotions in an aria or in exchanges with other characters. The nun and the priest each have something to hide and, with their emotional guards continually up, the audience fails to sympathize with either one.
This is not to say that some fine moments did not occur. The staging of Father Flynn’s parable that compared gossip’s effect to the retrieval of scattered feathers was visually stunning. Robert Brill’s fluid sets evoked church worship during the 1960s down to the last decorative detail. Douglas Cuomo’s score reflected the flinty, increasingly dissonant relationship between the two power brokers in the St. Nicholas Church hierarchy. And Shanley’s depiction of Sister Aloysius’ ramrod instillation of religious discipline evoked some familiar nervous laughter, uncommon for most operas.
But doubt is an abstract concept that implies absence, whether of certitude or proof. Neither bel canto opera nor musical melodrama, Shanley’s opus contains a doctrinal battle of wills without a sympathetic viewpoint that someone like the disgraced choir boy might have provided. Consequently, the libretto’s terse, increasingly tense exchanges between principals sustain the play’s intellectually arid theme without gripping the audience emotionally. The verdict regarding Shanley’s librettist abilities matches Sister Aloysisus confession: “I have such doubts.”