Written by Tucson, Arizona-born composer Douglas J. Cuomo, set in a Bronx, New York Catholic school in 1964, and sung entirely in English, ‘Doubt’—a dark and riveting tale—will delight opera aficionados, but, with so many cultural elements familiar to American audiences, the work could also serve as an introduction to the glorious world of opera for the uninitiated, more so than some of the less-accessible operatic literature.
“…will delight opera aficionados…also serve as an introduction to the glorious world of opera for the uninitiated…”
Based on the hit Broadway play by John Patrick Shanley, and later adapted into an Academy Award nominated film starring Meryl Streep, the opera version of ‘Doubt’ likewise illuminates the struggle of good over evil, particularly when that struggle takes place within a system designed to protect an elite class. In this case, the all-male Catholic clergy.
Wiser to the realities of the world than the young and naïve Sister James (mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala), Sister Aloysius Beauvier (soprano Christine Brewer) has noticed Father Flynn’s (baritone Matthew Worth) concerning behavior with a young boy named Donald Miller (Julius Andrews)—the first African American student to enroll in a school dominated by Irish and Italian families. She confronts Father Flynn, knowing full well that she cannot go up against the all-male hierarchy and win, but nonetheless committed to risking everything to protect the children at her school.
Brewer embodies the commanding and uncompromising Sister Aloysius (as a Catholic school alum myself, I am familiar with the Sister Aloysius no-nonsense approach to education, which left me wondering if a sung scolding instead of a spoken one might have lessened the discomfort). The power and clarity in Brewer’s soprano voice is truly thrilling.
By contrast, Zabala, a gifted mezzo-soprano, conveys the naïve innocence of a young woman who has spent her entire life immersed in a culture that views Catholic Priests as just a notch or two under God, and most certainly, far superior to women, even consecrated nuns. In the larger picture, Sister James symbolizes those Catholics who believe that unquestioning faith in the church is a virtue, and that priests should be protected at all costs.
Father Flynn, knowing that Sister Aloysius suspects him of abusing the young boy, exploits the power his status gives him. In a church that does not allow women to speak at Mass, he uses his right to speak to attempt to intimidate Sister Aloysius into silence during a pointed sermon. When Sister threatens to expose his behavior, he reminds her that she must obey her superiors, the all-male hierarchy, who he rightly assumes will protect him.
When Donald’s mother, Mrs. Miller (the incomparable Denyce Graves), arrives for a meeting in Sister Aloysius’s office, it becomes clear that Father Flynn had chosen his victim carefully, fully confident that he would never be held to account for his actions.
A visually appealing production, the sets and costumes add an authentic 1960s Catholic feel to the proceedings., including traditional school uniforms, full habits, and some rather ornate priestly garb.
Directed by Kevin Newbury with Christopher Franklin conducting, ‘Doubt’ is a powerful story as well as a call to action to dismantle the structures that guarantee good people will suffer and the guilty, go free.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 19 minutes.
PBS has made ‘Doubt’ available for free streaming until June 22. To view the performance, click here.