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Troupe fuels fiery emotion of 'The Crucible'

Opera Boston's stirring production of Robert Ward's operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller's ''The Crucible" demonstrates why it has been one of the most performed American operas of the last 50 years. Miller found a satisfying dramatic shape for the story of the Salem witch hunt, and one that lends itself to opera -- there are strong characters; a great, theatrical trial scene; big emotions and issues; opportunities for arias, duets, and complex ensembles.

It may even be that Ward's opera will endure longer than Miller's play, whose biblical and period language, unwavering seriousness, and preachiness can weary. Bernard Strambler's skillful libretto pares everything down to essentials. Ward's cosmopolitan musical language -- ranging from folk song, hymn and spiritual, to Mussorgskyesque speech/song, Handelian elaborations to underline hypocrisy, and soaring verismo melodies, all mildly spiced with dissonance -- liberates the text from its dual period (the 17th century and the mid-'50s) and makes the story and the emotions it arouses feel universal.

Ward's music may not be full of mysteries you can never get to the end of, but we are always in the hands of a thoroughly equipped professional with a strong instinct for musical theater and an assured technique (orchestration, text setting, knowledge of the voice, fluent mastery of musical forms). ''The Crucible" packs a punch.

So did Opera Boston's production. Steven Capone's New England barn-style slatted set is versatile, evocative, and an invitation to Christopher Ostrom's imaginative lighting. Most of the opera is crowded with onstage characters, and director Jay Lesenger, while springing no surprises, kept the ensemble fluid, disciplined, and focused, while encouraging vigorous individual characterizations.

Conductor Gil Rose got confident and sometimes fiery musical work from the orchestra and a principal cast of 17. Unfortunately a lot of the performance was marred by insecure, forced, and unattractive vocalism. This was particularly damaging in the case of Erika Rauer, in the crucial role of the trouble-making village vixen; Rauer has a great stage face and a strikingly individual timbre, but her singing was out of control.

On the other hand baritone David Kravitz was strong as a hypocrite, and Cindy Sadler gave an imposingly sung and vividly acted performance as the slave from Barbados. Mezzo Lorraine DiSimone used everything she has to create a portrait of a wronged woman conflicted by love, principle, and revenge, and Kathryn Day delivered powerful sound as the town's voice of reason while radiating moral force from her tiny frame. Baritone James Maddalena embodied with passionate conviction the part of a sinful but truthful man who accepts the consequences of his actions and will not compromise his conscience, and he backed it up with centered, ringing tone. This was a towering performance by a true singing-actor, a complete operatic artist.

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