Operatically, my dear Watson: “A Scandal in Bohemia” premieres

On Saturday afternoon, Swarthmore was treated to an unstaged preview of professors Tom Whitman and Natalie Anderson’s new opera, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” based on the story by Arthur Conan Doyle. The work was performed by a mostly-student orchestra, professional singers (and baritone Henry Clapp ’09 as Dr. Watson) and conducted by Whitman.

The prologue, first scene, and two arias from later in the piece were performed. Watson and the Reader (Swat voice teacher and basso profundo extraordinaire Julian Rodescu) split the narration duties in the prologue, echoing each other in counterpoint and presenting two different viewpoints on the same event: the Reader’s more objective stance and Watson’s romanticized version. Like the Conan Doyle story, the opera begins “For Holmes, she was always *the* woman.”

In Scene One, we are introduced to Sherlock Holmes (baritone John Andrew Fernandez), and Holmes and Watson are visited by a mysterious man (Rodescu again) who presents a case to Holmes: a woman, Irene Adler, has a few letters he wrote to her of some delicacy, which she refuses to give back. This allows for an exceptionally deep sort of trio (two baritones and a bass). The words were not always intelligible, but the sound was striking.

In the additional arias, Watson ponders the dilemma at hand (what dilemma, we will have to wait to find out) and Irene Adler (soprano Laura Heimes) sings about the man she seeks, and why her lawyer (who just proposed marriage) is not the one.

Whitman’s music is fresh, inventive, consistently interesting, and never difficult to listen to. The vocal writing is complex but graceful, the rhythms sometimes unexpected, perfectly fitting the varied meters of Anderson’s verse. The libretto admirably maintains a shade of Doyle’s characteristic Victorian tone but smoothes his convoluted syntax into more singable, poetic language.

Occasionally the small orchestra overpowered the singers, and the coordination between the singers and orchestra was not always exact, but for a first reading one could easily hear the shape of the piece. Clapp’s Watson was the most striking and secure performance.

The complete opera will be performed again next year, including several more singers, a chorus, and a slightly larger orchestra (in this performance, Mark Loria ’08 played the missing instruments’ parts on the piano, and also contributed some enchanting bell effects straight out of George Crumb). After the promising glimpse at the work offered Saturday, this will be an event not to be missed.

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